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US challenging Australia in Japanese meat market

Australia is losing to American exporters part of the Japanese meat market it has traditionally dominated.

Part of the problem for the Australians is that they will sell only entire carcasses, while Americans are happy to sell the selected cuts Japanese consumers like.

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Australians' domination of the Japanese beef market has included everything from ground steak to expensive cuts. But their beef comes from cattle that graze on grass, the same beef Australians eat, and in the past five years the Japanese have acquired a taste for corn-fed beef.

The Australians have tried to meet the demand. Like Americans, Australians also raise corn-fed cattle, but almost exclusively for export. And because Australians don't want to pay high prices and eat the corn-fed beef themselves, they export only whole carcasses. This means they have no domestic market to fall back on when the Japanese only want certain cuts of corn-fed beef.

US exporters don't have the same problem. What the Japanese won't buy can be sold at home.

The bottom line: a growing Japanese export market for US beef producers and a declining one for the Australians.

Recent talks between Japanese and Australian government officials led to assurances that Australia would continue to be a major supplier to Japan. But worried Australian producers noted the Japanese set no minimum import level.

Australian cattlemen are hoping the Japanese taste for corn-fed beef may have peaked - but apparently few in the industry really believe this.

In the year ending March 30, 1981, the latest period for which statistics are available, Australian beef exports to Japan dropped 8 percent, to 96,515 tons. US sales over the same period rose 10 percent, to 24,547 tons.

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Neville McDonald, a Sydney-based spokesman for the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation, a government agency, says, ''The key to the drop is at the top end of the market,'' where the choicest cuts of meat are sold.

He acknowledges that Australian officials are uncertain whether they will continue to lose out to US competitors.

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