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Asian Importers Look To Australia For Safe Meat

by 5m Editor
26 March 2004, at 12:00am

AUSTRALIA - Asian importers are turning to Australia to keep beef and chicken on the menu in the wake of the United States' mad-cow scare and the Asian bird flu. Distance has been the major historical drawback for Australia's meat exporters, but now it seems to be working in their favour as isolation and tough quarantine rules reduce the chances of an outbreak.

Asian Importers Look To Australia For Safe Meat - AUSTRALIA - Asian importers are turning to Australia to keep beef and chicken on the menu in the wake of the United States' mad-cow scare and the Asian bird flu. Distance has been the major historical drawback for Australia's meat exporters, but now it seems to be working in their favour as isolation and tough quarantine rules reduce the chances of an outbreak.

Australian beef exports to Japan this year have increased 44% over 2003 figures, rising to 59,000 tonnes during January and February, reports Meat and Livestock Australia, or MLA, the national industry organization. This followed a Japanese Ministry of Agriculture delegation's trip to Australia to source more beef following a ban on U.S. imports.

Two of Japan's largest gyudon, or beef-bowl, chains in March started promoting the use of Australian beef in their dishes. The second-largest gyudon chain, Matsuya, is combining Australian beef with Japanese beef and remaining U.S. stocks, while the fourth-largest chain, Kobe Lamputei, has switched to using Australian beef. The largest chain, Yoshinoya, has removed gyudon from its menu and is restricting its fare to pork and chicken dishes.

Australian trade officials have moved quickly to capitalize on the new demand, taking the opportunity to lobby the Japanese government to reduce the hefty 50% tariff it imposed on imports last August. Department of Agriculture figures show that Australia exported 409,619 tonnes of beef and veal to Asia in 2003, of which 279,316 tonnes went to Japan.

Beef industry experts first thought initial Australian gains in Japan would be eroded by market losses in the U.S. in the medium term. They feared the single bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE) incident in the U.S. might turn American consumers off their much-loved beef, forcing producers there to stockpile and reduce imports to that major market.

However, MLA reported that U.S. cattle and beef prices had bounced back to within 10% of their pre-BSE levels, and above their levels of a year ago. Says MLA chief market analyst Peter Weeks, "Australian cattle and beef prices are forecast to remain high during the period of U.S. suspension, with any negative impact on U.S. demand offset by stronger demand in North Asia."

Minister for Agriculture Warren Truss was at pains to avoid being seen to pounce on the Asian opportunities at the expense of the U.S. "Australia is not choosing to exploit the supply problems resulting from the ban on U.S. beef," he said in a statement. "However, Japan is a key market and it is important that their consumers retain access to quality beef. We will seek to assist wherever we can through this difficult period."

Australian Trade Commission, or Austrade, figures show the country's poultry-export market is quite small, with only 21,400 tonnes of poultry meat exported in the 2000-01 financial year, 98% of it chicken. But that may be changing, with both chicken growers and egg producers reporting a rush of demand from Asia over the past few weeks.

West Australian egg exporter Golden Eggs has been fielding calls and e-mails from Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. "They're sounding desperate, and . . . they're putting things in place to make sure that they have supply," says Golden Eggs sales, marketing and export manager Stuart Robertson.

The inquiries have converted to export sales, with the company exporting five containers holding 60,000 eggs to Singapore over the past four weeks. "It's opened up a lot more contacts for us, especially in Vietnam and Thailand, places that we've never really dealt with before," Robertson told the REVIEW. "They've been willing to pay higher prices."

However, producer's stocks have been stretched because the bulk of their production is aimed at the Australian domestic market. Robertson expects Asian importers to return to their traditional suppliers once the influenza scare has passed.

Australians eat almost all of the nation's chicken production at present, other than chicken feet, which are the major export item. The executive director of the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, Jeff Fairbrother, says the industry has always seen itself as an import-replacement industry rather than a major export industry. Only 4% of output was for export.

"That does not mean that the industry will not seek lucrative value-added niche markets when the opportunity presents itself," he told a national conference earlier this month. But the key focus would be on protecting the local industry against outbreaks of avian diseases. "The integrity of Australia's biosecurity is of immense importance to the future of Australia's chicken-meat industry," he said.

Australia has never recorded a case of the H5N1 virus currently affecting Asia. However, it has experienced five outbreaks of the H7 strain since 1972, the most recent in 1997. The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service is using an extra $467 million allocation to screen for high-risk products from affected countries.

Yet, no matter how effective the quarantine measures might be, there is still a natural risk to Australian poultry. Agriculture Minister Truss warned that migratory waterfowl, sea birds and shore birds had the potential to carry the virus into Australia. The irony here would be that Australia's distance from its export markets -- for centuries its greatest handicap -- might not be great enough to ensure it maintains this new trade advantage.

Source: eFeedLink - 25th March 2004

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5m Editor