By Boyd Champness

SYDNEY – The United States moved one step closer to imposing tariffs or quotas on sheep meat imports last week – a decision that could spell disaster for Australian lamb producers.

Americas peak sheep-farmer body, the American Sheep Industry Association, has called for temporary tariffs and/or quotas after claiming imports had caused serious damage to the American domestic market.

Last week, the association found an ally in the US International Trade Commission, which voted 6-0 that rising imports posed a threat of “serious injury” to American sheepmeat producers.

Imported lamb levels in the USA have doubled in the past five years from 15 to 30% of the market, and US farmers blame this increase for the downward price spiral in 1997-98.

Tougher trade restrictions would be a major blow for Australian lamb producers, as the USA remains Australias biggest and fastest-growing lamb export market, worth around A$100 million (£40m) a year.

The commission will meet next week to determine what action it will take to remedy the perceived future threat. It will vote on the remedy, possibly a tariff or quota, in late March and make a recommendation to President Clinton by 5 April.

President Clinton has until early June to decide whether to take action. However, the US sheepmeat industrys case is buoyed by the fact that 18 US senators have thrown their support behind the introduction of tariffs and/or quotas.