Australian exporters are preparing to defend their market share in the South Korean beef market, North Asia’s second-biggest market after Japan, after Seoul said it planned to resume imports of US beef.

Both Tokyo and Seoul banned US beef in late 2003 when mad cow disease was discovered in the American cattle herd. The South Korean move, announced last month, comes as Japan considers when it would resume buying US beef.

Meat markets had already begun to react to South Korea’s re-opening to US imports, although there was no reaction yet to any opening by Japan, Peter Weeks, chief market analyst at industry marketing concern Meat & Livestock Australia, said.

Shipments of US beef to South Korea are set to resume this month or next, Australian industry sources say.

Japanese lawmakers said in Tokyo last week that Japan was unlikely to allow US beef imports to restart by the end of the current parliamentary session in June. This has left the US beef trade hoping for a resumption in the second half of 2006.

“It’s still outside the trade’s radar,” Weeks said.

“In Korea, it’s definitely on the trade’s radar. They’re starting to minimize stocks. It’s definitely affected orders for Australian product in the last couple of weeks,” he said.

Australian exports to Japan and Korea leapt when the two big North Asian markets banned US beef.

Australian beef exports to Korea jumped to 106,000 tons in 2005 from 62,000 tons in 2003, before the ban on US imports. This boosted its market share to 71% from 21% over the period, while the value of Australian exports to Korea doubled to A$495 million ($375 million).

Over the same period, Korea’s total imports of beef fell by 45%, to 178,000 tons from 326,000 tons.

The United States had a 65% share of the Korean market in 2003, with exports of 224,000 tons, before it was banned.

At the same time, in Japan, Australian beef doubled to a 90% market share, worth A$2.25 billion in 2004.

But despite protracted negotiations which have taken Japan and the United States to the brink of trade friction, Japan remains much tougher for American beef to crack than Korea.

Free-trade agreement talks presently in train between Washington and Seoul are speeding a Korean resumption of trade. Also, Korea does not have its own internal protocols for inspection of beef, unlike Japan’s stiff rules.

This makes it easier for Korea to adopt more relaxed international standards than Japan.

“There could be quite substantial quantities of US product in that market for the second half of this year,” Weeks said. (Reuters)