For the latest trade data, see Livestock & Meat International Trade Data, which contains monthly and annual data for imports and exports of live cattle, hogs, sheep, and goats. The data set also contains import and export data for beef and veal, pork, lamb and mutton, chicken meat, turkey meat, and eggs. The tables report physical quantities, not dollar values or unit prices. The beef and veal, pork, and lamb and mutton data are reported on a carcass-weight-equivalent basis. Breakdowns by country are included. For the current U.S. meat and animal trade outlook, see the Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook report.

Beef Trade

Most of the beef produced and exported from the United States is grain-finished, and marketed as high-value cuts. Most imported beef is lower-valued, grass-fed beef destined for processing, primarily as ground beef.

U.S. beef production hit its cyclical low in 2004 when sharply reduced cow slaughter reduced domestic supplies of processing beef and total beef imports topped 3.6 billion pounds. (See the Background chapter for information on the cattle cycle). Production began growing in 2005 as herd rebuilding began, but the rebuilding was interrupted in 2006 and continued to stall through 2011 because of widespread drought conditions and sharply higher feed costs, resulting in increased cow slaughter. Domestic processing beef supplies were raised during this time, crowding out some lean beef imports. Imports continued to trend downward through 2011, also, in part, because of tighter supplies of beef in Oceania.

U.S. beef exports reached 2.8 billion pounds in 2011 (in carcass weight equivalents), surpassing the previous historic high of 2003. In December 2003, discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a dairy cow that had been imported from Canada led many importing countries either to ban or restrict beef and cattle shipments from the United States. Two more cases of BSE in the United States, in Texas (initially tested in November 2004, then confirmed in June 2005) and in Alabama (detected and confirmed in March 2006), were subsequently reported.

The BSE situation dramatically altered U.S. beef export patterns in 2004. Japan and South Korea (and various other countries) ceased all imports of U.S. beef, while other countries initially closed borders, but reopened them within a matter of months. Beef exports to Mexico rebounded during the year, making it the leading destination for U.S. beef from 2004 to 2010. Smaller amounts of beef went to Canada, which itself had large supplies of beef following its own trade disruptions related to BSE. Exports to Japan resumed in the second half of 2006, but their growth has been relatively slow because of the restriction that U.S. beef to Japan can come only from animals 20 months of age or younger. Exports to South Korea resumed in 2007 are currently limited to beef from animals 30 months of age or younger.

In 2011, over one-third of total U.S. beef exports were to Canada and Mexico. Adding Japan and South Korea accounts for nearly two-thirds of U.S. beef exports, and growing shipments to other Asian countries, the Middle East, and Russia largely account for the remainder. Note: It is assumed that trade restrictions remain in place until policy changes are announced. For the latest details, see USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)  Animal and Animal Product Import and Export Information.

U.S. beef imports began a downward trend in 2003 when Canada reported the discovery of its first native-born case of BSE in May of that year. Cattle and beef products from Canada were barred from entry into the United States after the announcement. In August 2003, Canadian beef imports resumed but were restricted to boneless products from cattle under 30 months of age. In November 2007, imports of beef from cattle over 30 months of age resumed with the restriction that the imported products had to be from animals born after Canada's March 1997 feed ban. (BSE is believed to be transmitted by feeding products derived from infected animals, such as meat and bone meal, and the current feed ban prohibits such parts from ruminant feeds.)

Currently, Canada remains one of the significant suppliers of beef to the United States in addition to Australia and New Zealand. Most of the beef imported from Australia and New Zealand goes into processed products such as ground beef. In recent years, tight beef supplies in Oceania and the strengthening Australian dollar relative to the U.S. dollar since 2009 have hampered total beef imports to the United States. U.S. imports from both Argentina and Brazil are restricted to cooked products because of disease restrictions, but these two countries provide a significant portion of the total cooked beef imported into the United States.

Cattle Trade

The United States imports significantly greater numbers of cattle than it exports. Canada and Mexico are the only significant cattle suppliers to the U.S. market because of to their geographical proximity and the complementarity of their cattle and beef sectors to that of the United States.

Cattle imported from Mexico tend to be lighter-weight cattle intended for stocker or feeder operations in the United States. On average, at least three-fourths of cattle imports from Canada are destined for immediate slaughter—either cows or fed steers and heifers. Some feeder cattle are also imported from Canada for finishing in U.S. feedlots. Of cattle imported for immediate slaughter, on average two-thirds have been fed steers and heifers and one-third cows.

Imports of Canadian cattle into the United States were banned following Canada's May 2003 BSE case. In July 2005, U.S. imports of Canadian cattle for immediate slaughter or for finishing in a U.S. feedlot resumed for animals less than 30 months of age. In July 2006, Canadian officials announced the discovery of BSE in a 50-month-old dairy cow from Alberta. The animal was born in the spring of 2002, and, thus, it was exposed to BSE well after Canada's feed ban was initiated in 1997. USDA temporarily withdrew a proposal to allow the importation of Canadian cattle over 30 months of age, pending the results of the investigation into the July 2006 Canadian case. However, in November 2007, USDA published a final rule in the Federal Register to allow imports of some live animals over 30 months of age and their meat products from countries recognized as presenting a minimal risk of introducing BSE into the United States. Currently, Canada is the only minimal-risk country designated by the United States. All animals born after Canada's 1997 feed ban are eligible to be imported into the United States.

U.S. cattle exports to Canada and Mexico vary from year to year in both the total numbers exported and the relative percentages exported to each. Historically, the United States has primarily exported slaughter cattle to both Canada and Mexico in addition to some feeder cattle to Canada. However, new markets for U.S. cattle exports have emerged in the past couple of years, including Turkey and Russia.

International Trade and Food Safety: Economic Theory and Case Studies