Underpinned by record production, U.S. pork exports completed a tremendous first quarter with new March records for volume and value, according to data released by USDA and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF). Beef exports also trended higher year-over-year in March, establishing a record first quarter pace.
"March export results were very solid, especially given the COVID-19 related headwinds facing customers in many international markets at that time," said USMEF President and CEO Dan Halstrom. "Stay-at-home or-ders created enormous challenges for many countries' foodservice sectors, several key currencies slumped against the U.S. dollar and logistical obstacles surfaced in some key markets - yet demand for U.S. red meat proved very resilient."
Some recent events, including temporary closures of several U.S. processing plants, are not reflected in the first quarter export data. Halstrom cautioned that April and May exports could slow as a result, but his outlook for 2020 remains positive.
"These are truly unprecedented circumstances, creating an uncertain global business climate," Halstrom explained. "The U.S. meat industry has spent decades developing a loyal and well-informed customer base throughout the world, which has embraced the quality and value delivered by U.S. red meat. Their commit-ment to U.S. products during this crisis is much-appreciated."
Strong demand from China/Hong Kong continued to drive U.S. pork exports to new heights, but March ex-ports also increased significantly to Mexico, Japan and Canada. Export volume reached 291,459 metric tons (mt), up 38% from a year ago and topping the previous record set in December 2019. Export value in-creased 47% to $764.2 million. Through the first quarter, pork exports increased 40% from a year ago to 838,118 mt, valued at $2.23 billion (up 52%).
Pork export value per head slaughtered reached $63.99 in March, up 32% from a year ago. The January-March per head average was $64.66, up 40%. March exports accounted for 31.6% of total pork production and 28.4% for pork muscle cuts - each up about six percentage points from a year ago, even as March pro-duction increased by 12%. Through the first quarter, exports accounted for 31.4% of total pork production and 28.5% for muscle cuts, up from 24.4% and 21.3%, respectively, in 2019. U.S. pork production was up 9% in the first quarter, with industry expansion fueled by strong international demand, especially in several key Asian markets still battling African swine fever (ASF).
Driven by solid growth in Japan, where U.S. beef is benefiting from reduced tariffs under the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement, as well as South Korea, Mexico, Canada and Taiwan, March beef exports totaled 115,308 mt, up 7% from a year ago, valued at $702.2 million - up 4% and the highest monthly value since July. First quarter beef exports climbed 9% from a year ago to 334,703 mt, valued at $2.06 billion (up 8%).
Beef export value per head of fed slaughter was $308.21 in March, down 8% from the very high March 2019 average. For the first quarter, per-head export value increased 2% to $317.06. March beef exports accounted for 13.9% of total production and 11.3% for beef muscle cuts, down from 14.8% and 12%, respectively, a year ago. Exports accounted for 14% of first quarter beef production and 11.4% for muscle cuts, each up slightly year-over-year. U.S. beef production increased by 14% in March and 8% in the first quarter as export growth continued to make a critical contribution to carcass value even as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the global foodservice sector.