US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has said US agricultural exports are set to reach near-record levels for fiscal year 2004, despite trade restrictions on beef exports following the BSE case.

“The importance of exports to American agriculture simply cannot be overstated,” Veneman said during a hearing on agricultural trade. “Exports solidly underpin farm income and support almost 900,000 jobs of which 40% are in rural areas. Every additional billion dollars in exports supports another 15,000 jobs on farms facilitating trade, in processing and manufacturing, and transporting commodities and food products.”

US agricultural exports are expected to reach a near-record US$59bn this fiscal year. This projection is $2.8bn above full-year 2003 export values. The strong export sales are attributed to higher prices and demand, stronger growth in the US and world economies and the lower-valued US dollar.

“This year, export sales to our North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners Canada and Mexico, our number one and number two trading partners, will surpass an unprecedented $17.6bn – more than double the sales to Japan, once top market for food products,” Veneman said.

“Our sales last year of $3.5bn to China moved it to our fifth-largest market. Sales this fiscal year are now forecast to be a record $5.4bn, triple the amount in 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO),” she added.

Veneman said agricultural exports for the full year 2004 would easily have surpassed the 1996 record of $60bn if not for the disruption of the $3.81bn beef export market caused by the December case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and the disruption of the $2.3bn poultry export market due to an outbreak of bird flu.

Re-opening these important markets is the USDA’s top priority, Veneman said, adding that Mexican and Canadian markets have re-opened for more than 90% of many US beef products.

“We are making significant progress with Japan and are continuing to work with Korea,” she added.