Mexico’s growing beef industry is targeting Muslim consumers in the Middle East for its prime cuts as it seeks to reduce dependence on buyers in the US.
The potential for a US-Mexico trade war under President Donald Trump has accelerated efforts by Mexican beef producers to explore alternative foreign markets to the US, which buys 94 percent of their exports worth nearly $1.6 billion last year.
Trump has vowed to redraw terms of trade with Mexico and Canada to the benefit of the US. Mexican beef companies fear they may be dragged into a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the three countries.
That has firms looking to the Middle East, where most meat is imported from non-Muslim countries using animals slaughtered by the halal method prescribed by the Islamic law.
Mexico, the world’s sixth biggest beef producer, plans to quadruple exports of halal beef to 44 million pounds (20,000 tons) by the end of 2018 from 11 million pounds (5,000 tons) this year, according to data from AMEG, the Mexican cattle growers association.
The country should have 15 plants certified to produce halal meat by the end of next year, up from a current six, according to AMEG data.
Jesus Vizcarra, chief executive and owner of SuKarne, Mexico’s biggest beef exporter, said his company sees big potential for sales to Muslim-majority countries.
“We have to seek out more markets,” he said in an interview, pointing to near-term targets in Egypt, the UAE, Qatar and Lebanon.
“There is an opportunity in these Middle Eastern countries,” said Vizcarra, who is known in Mexico as the King of Beef and has boasted of being born in a slaughterhouse.
Mexico’s cattle growers’ association sent a trade mission to Dubai and Qatar in late February to meet potential buyers, said Rogelio Perez, AMEG’s top trade official.
Inspectors from the UAE will visit Mexico by June after Saudi inspectors were in Mexico in March, he said.
“They left with a very good taste in their mouths regarding Mexican production systems,” he said.
Plants must be certified as halal compliant by third-party companies such as US-based Halal Transactions of Omaha or UAE-based RACS.
Earlier this year, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, expressed interest in buying Mexican beef for the first time although no deals have yet been cut.
Sales to Muslim countries would take a bite out of the market share for halal meat held by beef packers from the US and Brazil, according to industry and trade sources.
Mexico’s beef industry is able to grow its export markets due to a successful push to meet exacting US standards and modernize the sector over the past two decades.
That has put Mexican packers in a strong position to diversify away from the US market.
“It was our big strength until President Donald arrived, and now it is our major weakness,” said Bosco de la Vega, president of Mexico’s state farm council, adding that Mexico should limit beef exports to the US to a maximum of half the overall flow.
He said Mexico could do so in the next five years.
Russia is considering buying large volumes of Mexican beef and Mexico is also seeking to expand shipments to existing buyers like Japan and South Korea.
Mexico’s herd hit a record 31 million animals in 2015 and totaled 30.8 million in 2016, producing 4.142 billion pounds and exports of 712 million pounds.
Top exporters Brazil, India and Australia each export over 2.5 billion pounds. “We are on the path of diversification,” Mexican Agriculture Minister Jose Calzada recently told reporters. “And we will not stop because these occasional insults from the US toward Mexico have opened our eyes.”