Despite Challenges, U.S. Meat Exports on Record Pace through February

A cargo ship loads containers for export. ( Farm Journal Media )

U.S. pork exports posted the third largest month on record in February while U.S. beef exports also recorded double-digit gains from a year ago, according to data released by USDA and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF). Through February, exports of both pork and beef are on a record pace and account for a growing share of record-large U.S. production, according to a federation release.

February pork exports were up 46% from a year ago, reaching 273,056 metric tons (mt), and valued at $726.6 million (up 59%). This trailed only the volume and value totals from December 2019 and January 2020. For the first two months of 2020, pork exports exceeded last year's pace by 41% in volume (546,659 mt) and 54% in value ($1.47 billion).

Pork export value per head slaughtered was up 50% from a year ago to $67.77, the highest since 2014. The January-February average was $65.02, up 45%, the release says. Exports accounted for just under 33% of total February pork production and nearly 30% for muscle cuts only, the highest on record and up substantially from last year (24% and 21%, respectively). The January-February ratios were 31.3% of total production and 28.6% for muscle cuts, up from 23.8% and 20.6%, respectively, in 2019.

U.S. beef exports also achieved outstanding growth in February, increasing 18% from a year ago to 112,021 mt and climbing 17% in value ($681 million). These results pushed January-February volume 10% above last year's pace at 219,395 mt and 11% higher in value ($1.35 billion), the release states.

Beef export value per head of fed slaughter was up 11% from a year ago, at $343.03, the highest since December 2018. The January-February average was $321.86, up 7%. Exports accounted for 15.3% of total February beef production, up from 13.9% a year ago, and 12.4% for muscle cuts only (up from 11%). Through February, exports accounted for 14.1% of total beef production and 11.5% for muscle cuts, up from 13.5% and 10.7%, respectively, last year, the release continues.

USMEF President and CEO Dan Halstrom said the February export results confirmed that global demand for high-quality protein remains strong and resilient, despite COVID-19 dominating the news.

"By February, COVID-19 had emerged as a major health concern in several key Asian markets and was certainly impacting consumer and business activity, so it is great to see U.S. pork and beef exports achieve such strong growth," Halstrom said in the release discussing February results. "Obviously these are uncertain economic times and the road ahead remains very challenging, but these results are really a great testament to our international customer base. In the face of unprecedented obstacles, importers, retailers and restaurateurs are finding creative ways to meet consumer needs, and with record production the U.S. industry is well-positioned as a supplier. While we are in an unusual business climate that requires a lot of flexibility and innovation, there are excellent opportunities for red meat exports to continue to build momentum."

Stronger pork exports to Japan, Mexico complement continued surge to China

While China and Hong Kong were the largest driver of pork export growth in February, mainstay markets Japan and Mexico also posted impressive results, according to the data.

February exports to China and Hong Kong were even with the huge January volume and more than tripled from a year ago to 98,847 mt, while export value more than quadrupled to $243.2 million. For the first two months of 2020, exports increased 260% from a year ago to 195,849 mt and soared by 352% in value ($488.5 million).

In Japan, pork exports totaled 35,262 mt, an increase of 23% year-over-year, while value climbed to $145.8 million, an increase of 28%. Exports increased 9% in volume (66,840 mt) and 12% in value ($278.4 million) through February. Capitalizing on reduced duty rates, U.S. pork is regaining market share of Japan's imports of ground seasoned pork and chilled pork. Strong consumer demand for U.S. chilled pork at retail and for sausages produced from ground seasoned pork underpin this growth, the release adds.

February exports climbed 16% to 61,693 mt, while value increased 43% to $107.6 million in Mexico. January-February exports increased 11% in volume (132,153 mt) and 41% in value ($242.3 million) from the same period last year, when most U.S. pork entering Mexico was saddled with a 20% retaliatory duty. Although weekly export data show March volumes to Mexico remained sharply higher year-over-year, the pace slowed from that seen in February, partly reflecting devaluation of the peso, the data show.

February beef exports climb in most major markets

Mainstay Asian markets Japan, South Korea and Taiwan fueled beef export growth in February, but shipments also increased to key destinations in the Western Hemisphere, Africa and the Middle East, the release says.

February beef exports to leading market Japan increased to 27,099 mt, up 24% from a year ago, and climbed 20% in value to $171.4 million. Through February, exports exceeded last year's pace by 10% in volume (52,304 mt) and 7% in value ($329.5 million). With a level tariff playing field, U.S. beef is regaining chilled market share in Japan, boosted by Japan's strong retail demand, the release says. On April 1, the start of the Japanese fiscal year brought another reduction in tariff rates (to 25.8% for beef muscle cuts), and the Japanese yen remains relatively strong. 

Demand for U.S. beef continued to build momentum in Korea, where February exports totaled 23,532 mt (up 33% from a year ago) valued at $167.7 million (up 32%). This pushed the two-month total 16% ahead of last year's record pace in volume (41,326 mt) and 14% higher in value ($298.4 million). U.S. beef is also gaining further market share in Korea, with strong retail demand and increased sales through e-commerce platforms, the release states.