NCBA Editorial: Time to Take a Hard Line on Trade
RENO, NEV. - “Trust, but verify” is a timeless bit of advice made famous by President Reagan in the early 1980s when he dealt with foreign governments in military negotiations. It also strikes me as being very appropriate in trade negotiations, especially after 2 1/2 years of arm-wrestling over the re-opening of key markets to U.S. beef.
Many were surprised when the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association joined the recent call for sanctions against Japan if it fails to re-open its market to U.S. beef, and when we supported legislation to halt the import of Japanese beef into the United States. “Why would you take this stance,” they asked, “just as Japan appears ready to resume trade?”
The answer is that at some point, we’ve simply done all that we can to assure the Japanese that our product is safe. Japan is an extremely valuable trading partner, and I truly believe that they will eventually restore trade in a manner that is fair and reliable. I even had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Koizumi in person recently, and found him to be extremely sincere and engaging. But I’ll make no apologies for keeping the pressure on the Japanese government, right up until the day that we actually see the safest and best-tasting beef in the world back on Japanese dinner tables. We just can’t afford to take our eye off the ball, even if resumption of trade appears to be right around the corner.
While Japan stands out as the big prize among export markets, I feel much the same way about South Korea and China. South Korea was once our third-largest export market, and it has also engaged in numerous delays after promising to re-open to U.S. beef. China is a market in which we had only really scratched the surface. But with its enormous population and growing economy, it holds huge potential for the U.S. beef industry. While both countries appear to be on track to resume trade soon, it is clear that we still have much work left to do if our terms of trade are going to be fair and reliable.
China’s June 30 announcement that it has re-opened to U.S. beef fell far short of our expectations. It was a weak attempt by China to meet its promise to resume trade by the end of June, but the terms announced are far too restrictive. If China re-opens only to boneless beef from cattle up to 30 months of age, this market will reach only a small fraction of its full potential, and U.S. beef will fall beyond the reach of most Chinese consumers.
South Korea is also making this process far too difficult, as they not only want to exclude bone-in beef but also set tolerances for bone matter that are absolutely unattainable. While I agree that some modifications in our processing guidelines may be needed in order to satisfy our trading partners, these concessions must fall within reasonable limits. Agreeing to unscientific, unrealistic guidelines is simply a recipe for failure, and will almost certainly result in additional stoppages of trade.
NCBA is not asking any of these nations to compromise the safety of their citizens, or to look the other way on any science-based food safety guideline. But we must demand that they act in good faith and accept terms of trade that are based on sound, internationally established science. We’ve grown tired of all this political pandering, thinly disguised as food safety concerns. It’s time get our beef en route to the Far East – no more delays, no more excuses.
If sanctions and retaliation seem like a harsh approach, take a moment to consider how much the U.S. consumer is doing to buoy the economies of each of these countries. We imported over $243 billion in goods from China last year – six times the value of American goods that we exported to China. We also imported $138 billion from Japan and $44 billion from South Korea in 2005.
Whether these countries really make better products is a matter of individual opinion. But my point is that the marketplace – not the political arena - is where that debate is resolved. I firmly believe U.S. cattlemen raise the best and safest beef in the world. We also raise it more efficiently, so it offers excellent value to consumers around the world. All we are asking for is the chance to prove it.
Mike John is a cattleman from Huntsville, Missouri, and president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.