Japan, you'll recall, closed its ports to U.S. beef after the discovery a year ago of a single case of Mad Cow disease in the States. And though the two nations have established guidelines for resuming trade, nagging issues remain.
This week, the Japanese media fanned the flames by reporting U.S. food inspectors were finding violations of Mad Cow safety rules at some local meat plants. USDA denied the reports.
American beef producers have withstood that kind of fuss for a year now. And though a third of the markets initially closed to their beef have been restored, it's been a trying year just the same.
Fed cattle prices, which posted record highs earlier in 2003, plunged. Beef exports virtually stopped as more than 60 nations closed their borders to U.S. beef. While exports only account for about 10 percent of the 35 million head of cattle slaughtered annually, the economic impact was a loss of nearly $4 billion in sales overnight.
The agriculture department acted swiftly in the days following the announcement, killing more than 700 cattle suspected as having ties to the positive cow from Washington state. USDA later banned meat from non-ambulatory, or so called "downer" cattle, from entering the food chain and retooled its BSE testing program. Since June, more than 140,000 cattle have been tested for the disease -- compared to about 20,000 cattle tested in each of the previous two years.
According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the added regulations have cost America's farmers and ranchers between $300 million and $400 million.
But there was a silver lining in the BSE cloud that hung over the cattle industry during the early part of 2004... It is called demand.
Despite the loss of foreign markets, U.S. consumers never wavered in the days following the announcement. While cattle prices declined from record highs posted in the fall of 2003, they remained well above the 2002 average of 67 cents per pound. Today, cattle prices are in excess of 85 cents -- well into profitable levels for producers.