Reasons for optimism in U.S. meat exports

By Chad Smith, Special to Rural Strong Media

Exports are important to U.S. agriculture. There, we started with a statement worthy of Captain Obvious. Many sectors of agriculture produce more commodities than the U.S. can consume domestically, and one of those sectors is livestock.

Dan Halstrom, president and CEO of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, has the numbers from the first two months of 2023. It looks like the year is off to a mixed start. Pork is off to a stronger start than beef so far.

“Pork is going very well,” he said. “We have broad-based growth and are up 12 percent year-to-date for the first two months on the volume and just a little bit more than that on the value side.”

Pork exports are off to a solid start in 2023.

“Several of our key markets are contributing,” Halstrom adds. “Mexico continues to be the shining star and has been through the last year. They have had nine percent growth this year. China is up 30 percent. The Caribbean and Central American regions, the Philippines, and Vietnam are all seeing some sort of growth.”

Unfortunately, two of the biggest markets for U.S. pork, Japan and Korea, are both down slightly so far this year. He says part of that may be from the strong U.S. dollar and uncertainty about the shaky contract negotiations with union workers at the west coast ports which could slow chilled meat exports.

Beef exports started the year very slowly in January before picking up the following month. While it wasn’t a complete surprise because beef exports were expected to slow this year after a record-setting 2022, he was grateful to see February turn into a “rebound month.”

“Japan is a little better on beef imports than pork,” Halstrom says. “We’re steady there on beef compared to last year. Mexico is up big on beef this year, 15 percent higher than a year ago. The foodservice business has fully bounced back from COVID and booming on both beef and pork.”

Korea has taken a step back on U.S. beef imports this year, likely also reflective of the strong U.S. dollar and logistical concerns at west coast ports in the U.S. Despite a step back in some markets, the overall “mojo” is good.

“There’s still good demand in many places despite the headwinds we’ve referred to,” he said. “While the economic headwinds will likely continue, our forecast for 2023 pork exports is up 5-6 percent, so we are well on track for that through the first couple of months.”

Beef exports were expected to take a step back in 2023. After a slow January, February was a “bounce back” month.

The beef forecast is down seven percent for this year compared to 2022. That’s assuming the expected drop in beef production takes place, which it has through the first two months of this year. However, he’s optimistic about beef despite the forecasted drop in exports.

“I’m optimistic because of the foodservice business in Asia, especially when it comes to beef,” he said. “We were hamstrung in Japan, Korea, and China last year because of COVID lockdowns. But foodservice is coming back in Korea in a big way, we’re starting to see trendlines headed in the right way in Japan, and we’re looking for foodservice in China to come back after COVID lockdowns ended in December.”

He’s optimistic that even the existing markets have the capacity to be improved on forecast numbers. Places like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Colombia as markets that could exceed expectations.

“There could be some opportunities ahead for U.S. pork to step into the Philippines and Vietnam for additional exports because of what’s happening in the EU,” Halstrom says. “Europe was down five percent last year in pork production and is forecast to drop at least another five percent this year.

“They’re big suppliers in places like the Philippines and Vietnam, so there could be some opportunities ahead for U.S. pork,” he added. “But that drop in pork production could also raise opportunities for U.S. beef that we maybe didn’t see coming right away this year. There’s a gap in protein production that U.S. producers might be able to fill.”

He says the one sure-fire advantage the U.S. has in filling those gaps is America is known as a very reliable supplier of protein across the world. “There’s a lot of good things going on in the space of what we’d call new and emerging markets,” Halstrom said.

You can hear the latest updates from the U.S. Meat Export Federation each week in the “Meat Monitor” segment on the Tractors and Troubadours radio show and podcast, a production of Rural Strong Media.

Chad Smith is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. You can subscribe to his Field 2 Field blog by clicking here.

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