Fueled by impressive growth in a wide range of destinations, U.S. beef- and pork-export values shattered previous records in May, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Beef exports also reached a new volume record in May. Pork-export volume was the third-largest on record.
The outstanding May performance is especially gratifying when we consider where red-meat exports stood a year ago. The industry faced unprecedented COVID-related obstacles at all levels of the supply chain, and an uncertain international business climate. Those challenges are still not behind us, but international demand has been resilient. And the U.S. industry has shown a tremendous commitment to serving its global customers.
But U.S. labor availability remains a major concern and limitation for the industry, and exporters continue to face significant obstacles when shipping product overseas. Due to the ongoing fluid impact of COVID-19, food-service restrictions continue to affect several key markets where dine-in service is either suspended or subject to capacity limits and shorter hours. And tourism has not yet returned in many countries.
The U.S. Meat Export Federation remains optimistic that international demand will remain strong in the second half of 2021, but the road ahead is not an easy one. The U.S. industry must continue to be innovative and aggressive in defending existing market share. The industry must also expand its customer base by responding to COVID-driven changes in the marketplace as well as shifts in consumer trends and preferences.
May beef exports were expected to far exceed the previous year’s depressed totals. But export volume soared to a record 133,440 metric tons, an increase of 68 percent from a year ago, and value increased 88 percent to $904.3 million. It was the third-consecutive monthly value record for beef exports, which had never exceeded $800 million before March 2021. For January through May, exports reached 587,838 metric tons – an increase of 15 percent from a year ago. Value increased 22 percent to $3.84 billion.
May pork exports totaled 283,617 metric tons, an increase of 16 percent from a year ago and the third-largest on record – trailing only March 2021 and March 2020. Export value exceeded $800 million for the first time in May, climbing 31 percent to $813.2 million. For January through May, pork exports were slightly less than the previous year’s record pace at 1.34 million metric tons – a decrease of 1 percent. But export value increased 3 percent to $3.63 billion.
Record seen for beef exports to Korea
Beef-export value equated to $433.18 per head of fed slaughter in May, an increase of 53 percent from a year ago and breaking the previous record by more than $65. The January-May average was $361.29 per head, an increase of 13 percent. Exports accounted for 17.6 percent of total May beef production and 14.9 percent for muscle cuts only. That was a dramatic increase from the year-ago ratios of 12.5 percent and 10.5 percent. January-May exports accounted for 15 percent of total production and 12.6 percent for muscle cuts, each about one full percentage point more than a year ago.
Beef exports to South Korea were record-large in May at 29,403 metric tons, an increase of 61 percent from a year ago – valued at $225.4 million for an increase of 87 percent. That pushed January-May exports to 20 percent more than the previous year’s pace at 121,881 metric tons, with value increasing 27 percent to $912 million. Driven by excellent retail demand in both traditional venues and e-commerce, Korea is the leading value market for U.S. beef in 2021. Despite some COVID-related restrictions, Korea’s food-service sector has also been a strong performer for U.S. beef. Through May, U.S. beef captured 66 percent of Korea’s chilled-beef import market, an increase of 1 percentage point from the previous year. Chilled volume was almost 33,000 metric tons, an increase of 21 percent from a year ago.
May exports to Japan, the No. 1 volume destination for U.S. beef, rebounded to 30,721 – an increase of 54 percent from a year ago. It was valued at $208.3 million, an increase of 71 percent. Exports were impacted in April by an increased safeguard tariff rate, which Japan imposed for 30 days. But in mid-April the safeguard rate expired and U.S. beef received its annual tariff reduction under the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement. That put U.S. product back on a level playing field with major competitors, with beef-muscle cuts tariffed at 25 percent. Beef exports to Japan through May were still 2 percent less than the previous year at 131,423 metric tons, but export value increased 3 percent to $864.2 million.
Beef exports to China totaled 16,472 metric tons in May, only slightly trailing the April record. They were valued at $130.2 million. With expanded beef access to China in place for more than a year under the Phase One Economic and Trade Agreement, exports to the world’s largest beef-import market continue to climb. January-May exports to China reached 64,763 metric tons valued at $474.7 million – each an increase of about 1,200 percent year-over-year and already establishing new annual records. The United States is now the largest supplier of grain-fed beef to China and accounted for 4.4 percent of China’s total beef imports in the first five months of the year.
January-May beef exports highlighted
Decreasing by double digits in the first quarter, May exports of beef-variety meat trended more year-over-year for the second-consecutive month at 28,347 metric tons, an increase of 65 percent and the largest since 2019. May export value was $91.3 million, an increase of 72 percent and the third-most on record. While the variety-meat capture rate continues to be challenged by labor availability at the plant level, demand is strong in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Beef-tongue and other variety-meat exports to Japan also trended more and liver exports to Egypt rebounded. Beef-variety-meat exports through May were 6 percent ahead of the previous year’s pace at 125,175 metric tons, valued at $396.8 million for an increase of 7 percent.
- After a slow start in 2021, beef exports to Taiwan continue to show improvement. May exports were the largest of the year at 5,648 metric tons, an increase of 41 percent year-over-year; they were valued at $52.2 million for an increase of 60 percent. Through May exports to Taiwan remained 6 percent less than the previous year at 23,502 metric tons, but export value increased 3 percent to $222 million.
- Led by strong growth in Guatemala and Honduras, and an almost-doubling of shipments to El Salvador, beef exports to Central America increased 48 percent from a year ago to 8,401 metric tons, valued at $50.6 million for an increase of 60 percent.
- Beef exports to South America have made a strong comeback in 2021, led by growth in Chile and Colombia. Through May exports to the region increased 24 percent from a year ago to 12,422 metric tons, valued at $63.3 million for an increase of 52 percent.
Strong demand offsets reduced exports
Pork-export value per head slaughtered averaged $77.64 in May, an increase of 7 percent from a year ago. Through May the per-head average was $66.16 for a decrease of 2 percent. Exports accounted for 38.1 percent of total May pork production, an increase of almost 2 percentage points from a year ago. The share of muscle cuts exported was 33.8 percent, an increase from 33.3 percent. January-May exports accounted for 31.8 percent of total pork production and 28.6 percent of muscle cuts, compared to 33 percent and 30 percent, respectively, for the same period in 2020. That was sharply more than the 2019 ratios of 25 percent and 22 percent.
- May pork exports to Mexico were the largest of 2021 at 71,370 metric tons, an increase of 89 percent from a year ago, valued at $151.6 million for an increase of 158 percent. With tight domestic supplies in Mexico and a rebound in demand from Mexico’s processing and food-service sectors complementing strong retail sales, January-May exports to Mexico reached 325,747 metric tons. That’s an increase of 18 percent from a year ago, with value increasing 35 percent to $640.1 million. Mexico has recaptured its position as the No. 1 volume destination for U.S. pork-muscle cuts, with exports through May totaling 275,825 metric tons for an increase of 20 percent year-over-year.
- After slowing in April, pork exports to Japan rebounded to 36,504 metric tons – an increase of 34 percent from a year ago, valued at $154.7 million for an increase of 39 percent. Through May exports to Japan increased 3 percent year-over-year in both volume at 174,280 metric tons and value at $726.6 million.
- U.S. pork continues to achieve outstanding growth in Central America, where May exports reached 10,866 metric tons for an increase of 57 percent from a year ago and almost doubled in value to $29.7 million for an increase of 92 percent. May exports to Honduras were the second-most on record after March 2021 at 4,704 metric tons. Through May exports to the Central American region exceeded the previous year’s record pace by 51 percent in volume at 57,723 metric tons and 56 percent in value at $149.1 million.
- Bolstered by a temporary decrease in tariff rates and strong retail demand, pork exports to the Philippines remained large in May at 10,443 metric tons for an increase of 353 percent from a year ago. Value increased 370 percent to $28.7 million. For January through May, exports to the Philippines nearly quadrupled year-over-year in both volume at 50,116 metric tons, an increase of 274 percent, and value at $128.2 million, an increase of 289 percent.
- Following a depressed year in 2020, pork exports to Colombia continue to post an impressive rebound despite persistent challenges related to COVID-19. May exports increased 151 percent from a year ago to 8,290 metric tons, with value almost tripling to $20 million for an increase of 190 percent. Through May exports to Colombia increased 43 percent from a year ago to 41,052 metric tons, valued at $93.9 million for an increase of 46 percent.
- Pork exports to the Dominican Republic are on a record pace in 2021. May exports increased 5 percent from a year ago to 3,763 metric tons, while value increased 31 percent to $10.1 million. Through May exports were 40 percent more than the previous year in volume at 25,861 metric tons and 49 percent more in value at $62.3 million.
- Led by larger shipments of chilled pork and continued strong demand for convenience-based products, pork exports to Korea reached 17,966 metric tons in May. That’s an increase of 10 percent from a year ago; value increased 38 percent to $60 million. January-May exports still trailed the previous year by 2 percent at 81,203 metric tons, but value increased 4 percent to $248.1 million.
- Though demand has softened from the enormous totals posted a year ago, China-Hong Kong is still the largest destination for U.S. pork in 2021. That’s partly due to sustained demand for variety meat, for which exports through May increased 3 percent to 136,577 metric tons, with value increasing 9 percent to $332 million. But a slowdown in muscle cuts meant total exports decreased 22 percent to 408,896 metric tons, valued at $952.7 million for a decrease of 24 percent. The continued decline in China’s pork and live-hog prices suggests the trend is likely to accelerate in coming months, underscoring the importance of further export growth to other destinations.
May lamb exports largest
Led by larger shipments to Mexico and the Caribbean, May exports of U.S. lamb were the most of the year at 1,377 metric tons for an increase of 43 percent from a year ago, valued at $1.82 million for an increase of 67 percent. Through May exports were 53 percent more than the previous year’s pace at 5,733 metric tons, with value increasing 16 percent to $7.43 million. While variety-meat demand from Mexico accounted for most of the export volume growth for U.S. lamb, muscle-cut shipments also increased to Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, and Trinidad and Tobago.
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Dan Halstrom is the president and CEO of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.