SIPESVILLE, Pa. — To help beef farmers, the United States should maintain continuity in North American trade and keep meat flowing to Asia, according to a top beef lobbyist.

Trade is a big and growing cut of the U.S. beef industry. Last year’s $8 billion in exports broke the 2017 record by $1 billion and absorbed 13.5% of U.S. beef production.

And that’s why Allison Rivera is keen to see the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement enacted.

Rivera, executive director of government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, spoke at the Somerset County Beef Producers spring banquet on April 23 at the Sipesville Fire Hall.

The USMCA, signed by national leaders on Nov. 30, is supposed to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

To do that, it must be approved by the legislatures in all three countries.

That’s not easy with the 2020 election fast approaching, Rivera said.

The new arrangement offers some changes for U.S. farmers, including slightly increased access to Canada’s dairy market.

But rules for beef farmers are little changed. The new agreement maintains duty-free trade in beef and cattle among the three countries.

The transition is more complex than it might seem.

Trump could give Congress the new deal and vote on it within 90 days, or start the withdrawal from NAFTA and give Congress six months to ratify its replacement.

If Congress and the president mess up their timing and the U.S. withdraws from NAFTA before the new deal is approved, pre-1994 tariffs would go into effect — a worst-case scenario that could cause major problems for trade.

The cattlemen’s association has asked Trump to delay NAFTA withdrawal until the replacement has been enacted, Rivera said.

The trade deal also might not get approved until the U.S. resolves disputes over tariffs it slapped on Canada and Mexico last year.

While Canada and Mexico are big buyers of U.S. beef, they are by no means the only export customers.

Japan is the biggest buyer of U.S. beef right now, at $2 billion last year.

South Korea is second at $1.7 billion, followed by China at $1 billion.

“The relationship with China is difficult because of restrictions,” Rivera said. “Any type of beef they are going to get, they are getting through Hong Kong.”

Canada is fourth at $750 million.

Rivera also touched on pending changes in transportation regulation.

The cattlemen’s association and other ag groups are pushing to preserve and expand livestock haulers’ exemption from hours of service requirements.

“We have animal welfare issues that the rest of the world doesn’t worry about,” Rivera said. “We have a good safety record and we need to feed people, so hauling standards need resolution.”

On the consumer side, the “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner” ad campaign will be back on national airwaves in May.

The goal is to be in consumers’ ears and minds as they head to the grocery store and weekend gatherings, said Bridget Bingham, executive director of the Pennsylvania Beef Council.

“Connecting the dots from farm to fork is essential today,” she said, “and sharing the people behind the beef makes all the difference.”