April exports of U.S. beef edged higher than the previous month but still lagged behind year-ago levels, according to statistics released by USDA and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), contractor to the Beef Checkoff Program.

While the overall trend for exports remains sluggish, driven by market access issues and over-supply of domestic product in key markets, several leading trading partners showed positive signs in April.

Beef exports to Japan were up sharply as the island nation regained its ranking as the No. 1 market for U.S. beef for the first time since 2003.

At the same time, Hong Kong maintained its rapid growth pace and Taiwan continued its rebound from beta agonist-related issues that slowed exports last year.

While the boost in exports to Japan is encouraging — up 49 percent in volume and 44 percent in value versus the first four months of 2012 — USMEF President and CEO Philip Seng cautioned that Japan has a safeguard in place that will increase tariffs if beef import volumes rise too quickly. This safeguard, which was utilized by Japan in 2003 under similar circumstances, remains an important consideration for U.S. exporters and Japanese importers.

Summary of April results

April beef export volume of 190 million pounds was down 9 percent from a year ago and export value was down 7 percent to $434.8 million. For January through April, beef exports were 2 percent higher in value ($1.75 billion) despite a 5 percent decline in volume (756 million pounds).

Russia’s suspension of imports of U.S. beef, which officially closed the market Feb. 11, continues to hamper overall performance.

USMEF estimates this trade impasse, which is related to Russia’s enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy for beta agonist use, has cost the U.S. industry about $97 million in beef export value so far in 2013.

“Along with our lack of access to sell beef in mainland China, this is the biggest barrier we face in terms of market access,” said Seng. “One often overlooked factor is the effect this suspension has on the price U.S. products command in markets other than Russia.

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 “For example, beef livers to Egypt have increased in volume, but the value is down. The impact is much broader than many analysts realize at first glance.”

Through April, beef exports equated to 9 percent of U.S. muscle cut production and 12 percent including variety meat — down from last year’s ratios of 9.6 percent and 12.7 percent. Export value equated to $217.54 per head of fed slaughter, up 3 percent from the same period last year.