US beef exports are showing signs of strong recovery, with key markets in Asia opening up and sales volumes starting to build.

The industry suffered a serious hit in 2003, when the USA reported its first case of BSE and export markets, which at that point were worth $7.5bn (£3.8bn) a year, started to close. At the peak of the crisis about two-thirds of that business was shut down.

Reopening the export market has been painstaking, requiring tightened controls on farms and in abattoirs and numerous trade missions to convince buyers that the problem had been dealt with.

The crucial Japanese market – once worth $1.7bn (£900m) – was reopened in December 2005, but was closed again after a breach of the protocols governing the presence of specified risk materials.

Since then, trade with Japan has increased slowly, but on the pro­viso that the beef only comes from animals aged 20 months or younger and that all consignments are individually checked.

US ranchers got a boost late last month when the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in Paris reclassified the USA as a “controlled risk” area for meat safety, an endorsement of its BSE control measures.

This news has been followed by an announcement from Japan that, following a satisfactory inspection of 28 US beef processing facilities, it is to end the 100% testing of all export consignments and will instead implement a sampling system.

US agriculture secretary Mike Johanns has also welcomed an announcement from South Korea that it is set to resume the import of boneless beef. Trade was interrupted earlier this month when US beef that was intended for the domestic market was re-exported to South Korea, in violation of an agreement between the countries.

Perhaps the best news for US ranchers, however, has come from Malaysia, which is to resume importing bone-in beef from animals of all ages, in conformity with OIE guidelines for “controlled risk” countries.

“Science provides us with clear data upon which international trading standards were built,” said Mr Johanns. “All our trading partners must be mindful of these guidelines and work towards complying with them.”

Latest figures from the US department of agriculture reveal a 14% rise in US beef exports in the first quarter of 2007. The US Meat Export Federation predicts that exports will return to pre-BSE levels by 2010.

US cattle ranchers are enjoying brighter prospects as exports start to recover.

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk