Nine years after the “cow that stole Christmas” triggered a widespread shutdown of export markets for U.S. beef, Brazil’s first BSE case resulted in a much more limited and measured response from most trading partners.

The case was announced Dec. 7 – about two years after its initial detection. At press time, six countries – Saudi Arabia, Peru, China, Japan, South Korea and South Africa – had suspended beef imports from Brazil. Brazilian officials have issued a March 2013 deadline for lifting these restrictions, or they plan to pursue action through the World Trade Organization.

None of these market closures represent a devastating blow to Brazil’s overall beef trade, but the level of impact varies from market to market. Because of foot-and-mouth disease-related restrictions, Brazilian beef was already banned from South Korea, and Japan’s imports were limited to small volumes of heat-treated products. In 2012, Brazil reports exports to Japan of only 1,489 metric tons (mt), valued at about $7 million. South Africa is not a significant market for Brazilian beef, with exports totaling only 64 mt valued at $221,000.

Brazil is Peru’s largest beef supplier by volume (7,679 mt) and second to the U.S. in value ($15.6 million). However, as a destination for Brazilian beef exports, Peru ranks only 20th in volume and 29th in value.

Brazil’s exports to China had recently been on the rise, with eight plants approved to export boneless muscle cuts and certain offal products. Exports totaled 14,830 mt valued at $64.8 million – up dramatically from the same period last year.

Saudi Arabia is the most significant loss, as Brazil’s exports to this market totaled 34,396 mt valued at $157.5 million. This makes Saudi Arabia the seventh-largest market for Brazilian beef in terms of volume and 10th largest in value. (Also note that Saudi Arabia closed its market to U.S. beef following the April 24 BSE case in California, and hasn’t reopened.)

Brazil's "big three" markets remain open

Russia, which has accounted for 22% of Brazil’s 2012 export volume (235,108 mt) and 20% of the value ($984.5 million), has announced no plans to suspend trade. Neither has No. 2 market Hong Kong, where exports totaled 150,807 mt valued at $565.7 million.

Initial media reports stated that Egypt had suspended imports of beef products originating from the Brazilian state of Parana, where the BSE case was found. However, Brazilian officials later clarified that Egypt had imposed no new restrictions. Egypt is Brazil’s third-largest market in terms of both volume (128,222 mt) and value ($510.4 million).

Some in the U.S. beef industry, which endured billions of dollars in lost exports after the 2003 BSE case, are understandably frustrated by the relatively mild reaction Brazil’s first case has received. In this situation, however, it’s important to take a long-term view rather than dwell on the past.

A Closer Look: BSE Sanctions Costing U.S. Billions

“I can understand why some beef producers may feel Brazil is getting off easy by comparison,” says Thad Lively, U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) senior vice president for trade access. “But this is really a reflection of how far the world has come in its understanding of BSE, and it shows that trading partners are taking a more science-based approach when a case is detected. From that standpoint, it’s really positive news for any beef-exporting country.”

Brazil’s BSE risk classification not expected to change

Brazil has received a negligible risk classification for BSE from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and isn’t expected to lose this status. It is USMEF’s understanding that the U.S., which is currently classified as controlled risk for BSE, will seek a negligible risk classification from the OIE in the near future.

“With all the safeguards employed by the beef industry, great strides have been made in reducing the presence of BSE worldwide,” Lively says. “But atypical cases like the one in Brazil, and the case found in California back in April, are something the industry still faces from time to time. Thankfully, the negative impact on trade is not nearly what it would have been a decade ago.”

 Editor's note: All 2012 export totals are through November and based on Global Trade Atlas data.