U.S. red meat exports ended the first quarter on a very high note, according to data released by USDA and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), with March beef and pork exports each posting the highest monthly value on record. Pork exports and shipments of beef muscle cuts also set new volume records in March.
According to USMEF, beef exports totaled 124,808 metric tons (mt) in March, up 8% from a year ago and the second largest of the post-BSE era. Export value broke the $800 million mark for the first time at $801.9 million, up 14% year-over-year. Beef muscle cut exports set new monthly records for both volume (98,986 mt, up 13% from a year ago) and value ($718.3 million, up 17%). For the first quarter, beef exports pulled even with last year's pace at 333,348 mt, valued at $2.12 billion. For beef muscle cuts, first quarter exports increased 4% to 262,914 mt, valued at $1.9 billion (up 5%).
Beef exports to China during March were far above last year’s low totals and reached a new monthly record of 14,552 mt, valued at $109.9 million. This, USMEF said, pushed first quarter exports more than 1,500% above last year’s pace in both volume (31,058 mt) and value ($234.1 million), and exports increased about 25% from the strong fourth quarter of 2020.
USMEF pointed out that U.S. beef accounted for 3.4% of China’s first quarter imports, up from less than 1% at this time last year, making the U.S. the largest supplier of grain-fed beef to China. Further, USMEF said the prospect for further growth in the coming months was raised as additional U.S. plants were approved for export to China in April.
March highlights for U.S. beef also included record exports Honduras and the Philippines and strong results in South Korea, Chile and Colombia.
While Japan remains the top volume market for U.S. beef, USMEF reported that first quarter exports were 9% below last year’s pace at 75,409 mt, valued at $485.2 million (down 7%). This was due to a higher safeguard tariff rate, which was triggered March 18 and remained in effect for 30 days. USMEF said the tariff rate for U.S. beef muscle cuts is now 25%, back down from the 38.5% rate imposed during the safeguard period.
On the pork side, USMEF relayed that March exports were record-large at 294,724 mt, up 1% from last year's strong total, and set a new value record at $794.9 million (up 4%). Pork muscle cuts also set new monthly records for both volume (247,660 mt, up 2% from a year ago) and value $689.2 million (up 4%). For the first quarter, pork exports were 7% below last year's pace in both volume (782,620 mt) and value ($2.07 billion). Pork muscle cuts followed a similar trend at 659,420 mt (down 7%), valued at $1.79 billion (down 8%).
March pork exports were led by Japan, with exports totaling 40,746 mt, up 11% from a year ago. Export value increased 13% to $169.5 million. USMEF said this performance pushed first quarter exports slightly ahead of last year’s pace at 104,828 mt (up 1%) valued at $436.2 million (up 2%).
A strong export pace was also seen in Mexico, the Philippines and Central America, including new records in Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Exports were also record-large to the Dominican Republic for the second consecutive month, USMEF added.
Data showed China/Hong Kong remains the largest destination for U.S. pork in 2021, despite first quarter exports falling 20% from a year ago to 236,498 mt, valued at $532.3 million (down 27%). USMEF noted that March export value to the region was $202.5 million, down 14% from a year ago but the highest in 10 months as exports of bone-in ham and shoulder cuts to China set a new monthly record.
"It's very gratifying to see such an outstanding breakout month for U.S. beef and pork exports," said USMEF President and CEO Dan Halstrom. "Exports were off to a respectable start in 2021, considering the logistical and labor challenges the industry is facing and ongoing restrictions on the foodservice sector in many key markets. While these obstacles are not totally behind us, the March results show the situation is improving and the export totals better reflect the strong level of global demand for U.S. red meat."
While muscle cuts certainly drove March export growth, Halstrom was also encouraged by a rebound in shipments of beef and pork variety meat.
"The tight labor situation at the plant level has been especially hard on variety meat volumes," Halstrom said. "But March variety meat exports matched last year's performance for pork and were the largest of 2021 on the beef side. It's important that the capture rate for variety meat continues to improve, as this is a critical component of the export product mix."
A detailed summary of first quarter red meat export results, including market-specific highlights, is available from the USMEF website.