Where's the Beef? More Than Ever, It's in China

BEIJING (TheStreet) -- Michelle Obama scored points with the Chinese public last month by enjoying a full-strength, spicy-hot Sichuan dish at a Chengdu restaurant.

She got extra points because the meal included beef imported from Australia -- a detail included in Chinese media coverage of the first lady's weeklong trip to China that highlights a new food trend.

Hot Sichuan peppers and pork are still more popular than beef in China. But demand is soaring for all kinds of beef products imported from a handful of countries led by Australia, Uruguay, New Zealand and Canada.

That demand could someday benefit American meatpackers, too, if China lifts a ban on U.S. beef in place since 2003. It was imposed due to an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also called "mad cow" disease or BSE. Brazilian beef has been locked out for similar disease risks since 2012.

Tyson Foods (TSN), privately held Cargill, JBS (JBSAY) and Leucadia National's (LUK) National Beef are among the meat processors ready to jump into China should the market re-open to U.S. beef, according to Joel Haggard, senior vice president for the Asia-Pacific division of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

"They're all poised," he told TheStreet.

Here are a few signs of China's growing appetite:

  • Consumer beef prices in China have shot up 85% over the past four years, according to the country's Ministry of Agriculture.
  • China last year imported more than 140,000 metric tons of beef, worth $5.1 billion, compared to just 40,000 tons in 2011, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
  • China used to be a net exporter of beef due to traditional demand across Asia for stew cuts of meat from cattle raised on China's northern grasslands. But USMEF said the country became a net importer in 2011. And last year's imports by weight were seven times exports.
  • Butcher stands for beef imported from Australia have started popping up in neighborhood markets in Shanghai, Shenzhen and other cities.

When will the Chinese start enjoying American beef again?

Haggard of the U.S. Meat Export Federation said scientists have concluded that the BSE threat is over. Moreover, the ban's effectiveness was recently called into question after officials learned Brazilian beef had been illegally slipping into China through Hong Kong.

U.S. and Chinese government officials last year reached a preliminary agreement as a first step toward re-opening the market, Haggard said. But the agreement did not set a timetable for action. And the Chinese government has said nothing in public about allowing U.S. beef again.

Tyson and Cargill currently operate meat processing facilities in China, so a lifting of the ban would likely have less impact on those companies than on other American meatpackers. Another U.S. meat giant, Hormel Foods (HRL), has a strong presence in China's pork sector.

Chinese meals generally favor dishes that call for grass-fed beef, but America's grain-fed beef would find a ready market as steak-eating and Korean-style barbecues are increasingly popular in China. Chinese also like to eat the stomachs, tongues and other so-called variety meats Americans rarely consume.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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