By Boyd Champness

AGAINST the backdrop of increased markets and prices for beef meat exports this year, the live cattle trade is also quietly confident of emerging from the Asian crisis relatively unscathed.

The live cattle trade peaked in 1997, when 883,000 live cattle were exported. But the industry suffered substantial cuts after the Asian economic meltdown, which began to hit at the end of 1997.

Meat and Livestock Australia believes exporters would have shipped one million head of live cattle for 1997 if the Asian crisis had not hit.

Live cattle exports totalled just 510,000 in 1998, and much of that was to flourishing markets in North Africa and the Middle East rather than Asia.

Once Indonesia succumbed to the economic downturn the situation turned nasty.

Indonesia took 387,000 cattle in 1997 but just 22,600 head last year. Philippines, Australias other big market in Asia, reduced its imports from 253,000 head in 1997 to 165,000 last year.

But in contrast, the North African and Middle East trade more than doubled last year to around 200,000 cattle.

Libya took 98,000 cattle in 1997 and 106,000 last year compared with only 8000 in 1996, a direct result of that countrys concerns about Europes mad-cow disease.

Egypt took 42,000 cattle in 1997, rising to 97,000 head last year. And the Middle East grew from 4000 in 1997 to 37,000 last year.

Trade figures released last month suggest Australian exports to many Asian countries were showing significant signs of recovery.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics said exports rose 8% in the six months to December and 9% in a single month from November to December.

However, it said a full recovery to pre-crisis levels was still some way off.

MLA forecasts that Indonesia will probably take about 100,000 head of live cattle this year.