U.S. beef imports in January totaled 352 million pounds, nearly 57% higher year over year and 47% above the 5-year average, according to USDA data. This was a record for the month of January and the fourth largest monthly import overall, led by imports of beef from Brazil, which have spiked in the last two years as U.S. demand for processing-grade beef has substantially increased, according to USDA’s latest “Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook.” In fact, in January 2022 alone, USDA reported that imports reached nearly 100 million pounds—a more than 500% increase relative to the same month a year earlier—with fresh beef accounting for 83 million pounds.
Historically, imports from Brazil primarily consisted of heat-treated beef products, including prepared or preserved beef. In February 2020, however, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service determined that fresh beef from Brazil was eligible for import. As a result, beef imports from Brazil have risen, USDA noted.
Record high U.S. beef prices and drought-impacted supplies in Australia, where the U.S. would otherwise source beef, have also contributed to growing imports of processing-grade beef from Brazil, according to the report. Further, in September 2021, China—the destination for more than 40% of Brazilian beef exports in 2021—temporarily embargoed imports of Brazilian beef based on animal health concerns. The embargo was lifted in December 2021, but not before some of Brazil’s beef was redirected to other markets, including the U.S.
Despite the gains, USDA said further increases in U.S. imports of fresh beef from Brazil are limited by the tariff rate quota system. Beef imported from Brazil enters the U.S. under the open quota system. Once the quota is filled, imports of fresh beef from Brazil would be subject to a higher tariff, reducing the beef’s competitiveness with sources from other countries.
USDA recently raised its Q1 2022 U.S. import forecast by 90 million pounds to 890 million, reflecting recent data. However, forecasts for the outlying quarters were decreased slightly based on smaller shipments from South America. Still, USDA raised its annual import forecast by 50 million pounds to 3.420 billion.