Last Friday, Republican Senator Steve Daines hosted China’s ambassador Cui Tiankai at a ranch near Belgrade. The two were there to talk beef. In June, China lifted a fourteen-year-old ban on U.S. beef imports. But opening that door was only the first step.
Surrounded by a gaggle of press, China’s ambassador Cui Tiankai looks like he just got off the set of "City Slickers."
He’s wearing a brand new, black cowboy hat, stiff brown boots and big silver belt buckle. The outfit was handpicked by Republican Senator Steve Daines who is now patting the ambassador on the back.
“He is the star, right here. This is our new Montana cowboy right here,” Daines says.
The two are here at the Morgan Ranch near Belgrade to talk beef. China is the world’s second largest beef importer, and, in an effort to make sure Montana ranchers benefit from the re-opening of the Chinese market, Senator Daines invited the Chinese delegation here for meetings and a whirlwind tour of the state, which includes a Montana-themed dinner at the senator’s house and a trip to Yellowstone.
But right now it’s time for business.
“Does everyone want to take their seats?” Daines spokesperson Katie Waldman says.
Members of the Chinese delegation, along with representatives from Montana’s grain and cattle associations, all take their seats at a roundtable. Daines cracks open a cold can of diet Coke, and the meeting begins.
“I just heard the good news that I think sixteen tons of American beef showed up by sea in China on September 1st," he says. "It’s the first by-sea shipment now, so we’re actually starting to see the U.S. beef heading into China."
In 2003, the Chinese banned U.S. beef because of single case of mad cow disease in Washington state. And now that the market is back open, Americans have to figure out how to sell their product.
They face stiff competition from cheaper and more abundant Australian and Brazilian beef.
“We cannot be the lowest priced red meat protein that’s going to be sent into China," says Fred Wacker, a rancher and vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. "But we will be the best.”
Cui says American beef is considered an expensive delicacy in China.
“For instance, when people are dating each other, the boys will show their love to the girls if they could go to have some American beef. And also for weddings,” he says.
Zhu Hong, China’s minister for Economic and Commercial Affairs, says if Montana wants to sell more beef in his country, they need to focus on branding.
“I’ll give you an example, because Kobe beef enjoys a very high reputation in China, but this is not easy for them to earn such a reputation,” he says.
CUI: “The Japanese. they have made it a legend, they have put a lot of myth in it.”
And Montana, they say, could do the same. Daines agrees.
“When the Chinese hear about the West, the cowboy, the pure air, pure water, you think of Montana," he says. "Yellowstone Park and Glacier Park, and that’s something that can help brand something there for that Chinese consumer."
Wacker suggests a taste-test tour of China, featuring U.S. and Montana beef. He also asks if the Chinese would be willing to invest in a processing plant here in Montana. Chinese companies have already invested millions of dollars in the state and the Japanese own most of the grain elevators here - that’s according to the Chinese delegation and the Montana Grain Growers, respectively.
A brand-new processing plant, Wacker says, would allow Montana ranchers to keep their cattle here in the state instead of sending them to feedlots in Nebraska.
WACKER: “Do you feel you would have interest in partnering with us in the United States on a first-class processing plant?”
CUI: “Maybe when export of Montana beef to China is more or less stabilized and channels are established, we could find your main buyers in China. And maybe with the help of some Chinese banks, like Bank of China in New York, they could invest in the infrastructure here.”
The Chinese delegation says their country is the fastest growing exporter of Montana goods, and the two groups briefly talk about how to sell more Montana grain, malted barley and maybe even beer in China.
Then, the roundtable adjourns, and the ambassador and Senator Daines take questions from a mix of local and Chinese reporters.
I ask the ambassador what would happen if there was another case of mad cow disease here in the United States - would we see another multi-year ban?
“On the technical side I think we have addressed this issue quite effectively, that’s why China is resuming its import of American beef,” Cui says.
Later Friday evening, Daines hosted the Chinese delegation at his house for dinner. The menu, which was curated by the senator, featured Montana bread, Montana beer, and Montana beef.