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The biggest blow from mad cow’s first appearance came when export markets closed to U.S. beef. Billions of dollars in sales disappeared in a matter of days, and some are just now returning.

“We’re getting pretty close,” said Jim Herlinhy, a spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

The Mabton news 10 years ago didn’t scare people in America much. Domestic beef consumption actually went up in the months that followed.

But Japan and South Korea, the No. 1 and No. 3 markets at the time, halted shipments the day of the announcement. A dozen other countries followed a day later.

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The U.S. exported $3.9 billion worth of beef in 2003; the next year that figure plummeted to $800 million.

Export organizations scrambled to control the damage.

The U.S. Meat Export Federation hung signs and visited retailers in Japan through “We Care,” an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at convincing shoppers to trust American farmers. The Washington Beef Commission contributed by dispatching Walla Walla ranchers Tom and Cindy Beechinor to Japan “to put a face on the state’s beef industry,” said Patti Brumbach, executive director.

Japan was one of the hardest sells. For years, Japanese officials insisted the U.S. test every single animal at the time of slaughter, as Japan does.

The United States refused. Such tests would cost the U.S. industry about $1 billion and wouldn’t do much good, said Ron DeHaven, the former chief veterinarian of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many of the animals would be too young to test positive.

Instead, the U.S. bumped up its random testing from about 40,000 head per year to more than 700,000 over the course of two years, largely to convince Japan, DeHaven said. Testing has since gone back down to pre-mad-cow rates.

Gradually, the international markets returned. Canada and Mexico came first in 2006.

Japan and South Korea still have not come back fully. They first opened to beef from animals 20 months or younger and, just last spring, broadened that to 30 months or younger, making about 90 percent of U.S. beef eligible, Herlinhy said.

“It’s been a protracted process,” he said.

This year, U.S. beef producers expect to break the 2012 record of $5.5 billion in export sales.

Saudi Arabia had reopened fully, but closed again in 2012 when a cow tested positive in California. Other positive tests have been recorded in Texas in 2005 and Alabama in 2006.

China still has not reopened, leaving U.S. exporters salivating as the world’s fastest-growing economy passes them by. In the first 10 months of this year, China imported $1 billion worth of beef, a 600 percent increase over the previous year.

None of it came from the United States.

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