US beef industry profits from fast-growing exports

Exports are big business for the U.S. beef industry, which shipped a record $5.4 billion worth of beef abroad last year.

It was the first year sales surpassed those in 2003, when exports to Asia collapsed amid the first U.S. mad cow disease scare. Before Tuesday's announcement that mad cow disease had been found in a California dairy cow, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted exports would drop slightly this year as ranchers limit production because of drought and high feed costs.

Last year, 14 percent of the beef produced in the U.S. was shipped overseas. Measured in both sales and volume, exports saw growth of more than 20 percent according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Four countries, Canada, Mexico, Japan and South Korea, accounted for 65 percent of last year's beef exports. Here's a look at them and other top buyers:

— CANADA imported 191,047 metric tons of U.S. beef in 2011, a 25 percent increase over 2010. (One metric ton equals nearly 2,205 pounds). It was worth $1.03 billion, up 41 percent from 2010. Canada was the first of the United States' major trading partners to say Tuesday that it was confident in the U.S. food safety system and would not limit imports because of the mad cow case.

— MEXICO imported 256,938 metric tons, a 4 percent increase. It was worth $985 million, up 20 percent. Mexico is among the major buyers of variety meats — pieces Americans disdain including tongues, livers and other organs. Last year, it was the No. 2 importer of variety meats by volume at 100,410 metric tons worth $223 million, and No. 1 measured in dollars. Mexico said Wednesday it would continue imports with safeguards it has had in place for eight years to keep mad cow cases out.

— JAPAN imported 158,646 metric tons, a 27 percent increase. It was worth $874 million, up 37 percent. Cow tongue is a delicacy that fetches high prices in Japan, one reason it is the No. 3 buyer of variety meats as measured in dollars. It imported 19,732 million metric tons worth $116 million last year. As a safeguard against mad cow disease, Japan limits its imports of U.S. beef to cows of 20 months or younger. Many countries limit imports to meat of 30 months or younger.

— SOUTH KOREA imported 154,019 metric tons, a 37 percent increase. It was worth $686 million, up 32 percent. Two major South Korean retailers pulled U.S. beef from their stores amid concern over how consumers would react to the announcement about mad cow, but one resumed sales within hours after the government announced it would increase inspections. South Korea's 40 percent tariff on beef is being phased out over the next 15 years under the new U.S-Korean free trade agreement.

— EGYPT imported 147,833 metric tons, a 30 percent increase. It was worth $236 million, up 33 percent. Egypt's was the No. 1 importer of variety meats by volume — 113,953 metric tons worth $141 million, and No. 2 in dollars. It is the top buyer of U.S. beef in the Mideast.

— RUSSIA imported 72,797 metric tons, a 27 percent increase. It was worth $256 million, up 68 percent. Russia imported 24,514 metric tons of variety meats worth $39 million, ranking it No. 3 in volume and No. 4 in dollars.

— HONG KONG imported 50,705 million metric tons, up 27 percent. It was worth $237 million, up 50 percent. Mainland China remains mostly closed to U.S. beef imports, however.

— VIETNAM imported 44,643 metric tons, up 3 percent. It was worth $192 million, up 17 percent.