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Beef and pork exports run ahead of 2019 pace despite pandemic

Exports of U.S.-grown pork and beef are flowing at a higher volume than in 2019, with a sales value of $4.86 billion through April. Strong meat exports are a sign that the United States is a reliable supplier worldwide despite coronavirus disruptions in meatpacking plants, said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday.

“Our exports didn’t actually suffer that much,” said Perdue during a webinar on agricultural innovation. Although shipments slowed in April, they were cushioned by fast-paced exports in January, February, and March, before the coronavirus spread across the country.

Meatpackers ran at roughly three-quarters capacity during April as outbreaks of the coronavirus among workers forced some of the country’s largest meat plants to close temporarily. Retail meat prices surged, and some grocery chains limited sales to customers. While production is recovering, the risk of a resurgence of the virus hangs over the industry.

According to data collected by FERN, at least 86 meatpacking employees had died and more than 21,000 meat plant workers had tested positive for COVID-19 as of midday Thursday. At least 273 meatpacking and food processing plants have had confirmed cases of the virus.

“The good news is we’re back up to about 90% to 95% production in those facilities,” said Perdue. “You can imagine that if the shelves in the United States had become bare, we would have created quite a panic, not only here but around the world. We heard from our importers around the world how important getting those plants back up was to them as well.”

A quarter of U.S. pork and 12% of beef produced this year will be sold to buyers outside the country, estimated the USDA. China, the top customer for pork, bought $720 million worth of it from January through April, twice as much as No. 2 Mexico, according to USDA data compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Japan and South Korea, running neck and neck for the top spot as beef importers, had purchased a combined $1.1 billion worth of the meat.

Through April, pork exports totaled $2.52 billion, up 48% from the same period in 2019, aided by an explosion in sales to China, the world’s largest pork consumer. Exports are 10 times larger than they were a year ago. An epidemic hog disease killed a large portion of the Chinese herd.

Beef exports through April totaled $2.34 billion, up 3% from the same point in 2019.

Before the pandemic, U.S. meat and poultry production was forecast at nearly 108 billion pounds, a record. In May, the USDA lowered the figure to 103 billion pounds “as the sector adjusts to COVID-19 and economic uncertainty.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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