U.S. cattlemen enjoyed one of the best years ever in terms of beef exports in 2011, ending the year with exports up 27% over 2010. But maintaining and increasing U.S. beef exports in the years to come will become more challenging, says Mark Gustafson, who leads the export beef business for JBS.

The U.S. is a strong competitor in the export market for several reasons, Gustafson says, but principally because it produces high-quality, grain-fed beef and does it efficiently, thus keeping the price competitive. But just because the U.S. produces a safe, wholesome, top-quality product doesn’t mean export sales will be easy.

Take China, for instance. Every exporting country in the world wants a piece of the Chinese market. “There are 22 restrictions we have to meet if we are to get a general agreement with China for beef,” Gustafson says. “You don’t have to read very far down the list of 22 things to see that the Chinese want us to be 100% traceable. So it’s a non-starter. We’re never going to get an agreement with China until we negotiate something on traceability.”

In fact, Gustafson says the U.S. and India are the only two major beef-producing countries without some semblance of an industry-wide traceability system. That’s not to say, however, that the U.S. can’t produce traceable cattle.

As an example, Gustafson mentions the non-hormone treated cattle that produce beef for the European market. But it’s a niche market, he says, “The problem is the economics of it.”

In Gustafson’s opinion, the U.S. needs to work toward an industry-wide traceability system. But he says it should be done for animal-health concerns and the driver should be the marketplace. “It should be the export market, it should be commercial issues, and our customers should pay for it.”