PRIME minister Paul Martin chided the United States last week over the lengthy closure of its border to Canadian cattle. What took him so long? Now that he has his feet wet in tough talk and cattle industry support on the BSE file, Martin should take his speech to Japan as well.
Japan has been closed to Canadian beef since May 2003, and closed to American beef since December of that same year. Since those closures, Japan has maintained that it will reopen to both markets simultaneously, when it is ready, because it believes the North American market to be integrated.
In mid-November, U.S. president George Bush is scheduled to meet with Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi to discuss the BSE border situation. It is widely expected that Japan will subsequently reopen to beef imports from cattle 20 months old or younger, likely starting in early 2006.
Last week, both South Korea and Thailand announced intentions to soon accept U.S. beef. They will likely also reopen to Canadian product.
While it may appear that the U.S. is carrying our water on border reopenings, such is not the case. A major American marketing campaign is sure to accompany any change, and Canada could lose a chance to gain market share once filled by the U.S.
The U.S. and Mexico have traditionally been the largest markets for Canadian beef. But the folly of heavy reliance on one or two markets has become apparent, and these past two years would have been ideal for making inroads into Japan.
Canada has an advantage now over American product because it can provide traceability and age verification of export beef from young animals. The U.S. industry is years away from that.
A Japanese government attuned to its health conscious consumers could surely see the superiority of that, and give more consideration to Canadian beef.
And while Canadian cattle industry officials have made numerous trips to Japan to tout the virtues of Canadian beef, federal government support hasn’t been nearly so visible. A strong message from the country’s leader could make a difference in a country where respect and diplomacy play a pivotal role.
There’s an increasingly crowded field in the beef export business. Australia has filled much of the gap vacated by the U.S. and Canada since 2003, and will be difficult to displace.
Brazil, which has the world’s largest beef export business by volume, is also a keen competitor, even though it is currently hindered by health concerns related to foot-and-mouth disease.
It will be a struggle for Canada to diversify its export beef interests. To succeed, it will need active and vocal support from Ottawa to insure that trade agreements are honoured and that Canadian beef is given its due.
What say you, Mr. Martin?