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Meat export boom continues

In spite of an array of challenges around the globe, the outlook for U.S. meat exports remains strong, according to the leaders of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, which is holding its board meeting in New Orleans this week.

Exports for both beef and pork are expected to match last year's, said the trade promotion group's president and CEO, Phil Seng.

A flat projection might sound ho-hum, but it's not when you consider that it follows record performance in beef and pork exports in 2011.

This year, Seng expects pork export volume to match last year's level of 2.3 million metric tons (mmt), whose value will also be about the same as last year's $6.1 billion. Beef export value could rise by 4%, to hit $5.6 billion. The volume should stay the same at about 1.2 mmt.

The MEF is hopeful that Japan may allow imports of beef from animals 30 months older or younger, loosening the current cutoff of 20 months. Japan did not stop importing U.S. beef when BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was discovered in April in a California dairy cow not destined for food use.

Seng gave credit for saving markets to the USDA's quick response and to MEF staffers who met overseas retailers after the discovery.

The U.S. has been gradually gaining market share back from Australia in its key  market of Japan, which stopped imports of U.S. beef after the first BSE case in the U.S. in 2003.

Seng looks for an 18 to 20% increase in beef exports to Japan this year over last, based on volume. Korea, which has signed a free trade agreement with the U.S., is likely to increase beef exports by 4%. Russia, which is in the process of entering the World Trade Organization, is expected to boost imports by 9%. And the Middle East should increase beef imports by 3%. European and American grocery chains are opening stores there that sell higher value cuts.

That growth is offsetting beef export declines elsewhere. Taiwan has banned U.S. beef containing the leanness-enhancing drug, ractopamine.

Mexico, which was the top importer of U.S. beef last year, has seen recent declines in volume.

That's partly due to Mexico's economy, which is just now recovering to the level it was before the 2008 recession, said Chad Russell, the MEF regional director for Mexico and Central America. And the Peso remains undervalued, creating "an affordability issue."

So Mexico has been importing more pork and poultry instead, he said.

"Mexicans like meat and they need to fill that gap," Russell said.

Mexico remains the top market for U.S. pork exports, on a volume basis. (Japan, which imports higher value cuts, is number one in export value.)

U.S. exports of pork to China and Korea were strong last year due to disease problems for local producers and that's not likely to continue, said Joel Haggard, the MEF vice president for the Asia-Pacific region.

"I think the most important development we should remember, the lesson of 2011 was that Asia experienced a significant shortage in production last year," Haggard said.

But both Russia and Mexico will offer new pork export opportunities this year, Seng said.

The U.S. pork industry now exports 28% of its production, including both muscle and variety meats.

In March, the value of pork exports hit $60 per head, an all-time record, said MEF Chairman, Danita Rodibaugh, whose family farms and raises seedstock swine in Rensselaer, Indiana.

"That truly is one of our nation's great agricultural success stories," Rodibaugh said.

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