WASHINGTON – While 2020 created food-supply snarls and hiccups domestically due to the pandemic, demand for US red meat exports appeared immune to the market volatility that resulted from COVID-19 outbreaks that hamstrung operations at some of the industry’s largest processing plants.

In fact, US pork export volume topped 3 million tonnes in 2020, an 11% increase over the previous year, according to new data from the US Meat Export Federation (USMEF). Export values of US pork also increased by 11%, at $7.71 billion. Meanwhile, beef exports from the United States ebbed 5% in volume compared to 2019, at 1.25 million tonnes, and value, which totaled $7.65 billion. The highlight for the beef sector came in Q4, especially in December, which was one of the best months on record, part of a promising quarter that saw volume increase 4.5%.  

Not surprisingly, demand from China fueled pork demand, USMEF said other countries’ demand showed a promising trend for the future. And beef demand, which lagged as a result of sweeping closures at foodservice outlets at the height of the pandemic, gained positive momentum in late 2020.

“Obviously the surge in demand from China, especially in the first half of 2020, was a driving force behind the record performance for US pork exports,” said Dan Halstrom, USMEF president and chief executive officer. “But China was not the only success story in 2020, as exports achieved growth in a broad range of markets. Diversifying export markets is a top priority for USMEF and the US industry, and that strategy paid dividends – especially in the fourth quarter, when exports to China/Hong Kong were down 9% from 2019 but shipments to the rest of the world nearly offset that slowdown.”

“Consumers across the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by seeking high-quality products they could enjoy at home, and US beef and pork definitely met this need,” Halstrom said. “We expect these retail and home-delivery demand trends to continue even as sit-down restaurant dining recovers, creating robust opportunities for US red meat export growth.”

Other highlights for the year included record-high volume of lamb exports, totaling 20.045 tonnes and representing a 27% jump over 2019, despite value decreasing by about 9% to $23.8 million. Notably, demand from Mexico resulted in volume increasing by 38% (18.93 tonnes) with value up 25% ($17.4 million) compared to the previous year.

Country-by country highlights included export volume of US pork to China/Hong Kong spiking by 56% over last year to 1.04 tonnes with value increasing by 63%, to $2.37 billion. A fourth-quarter surge in pork exports to Japan was attributed to favorable tariff provisions in the US-Japanese Trade agreement, resulting in volume of shipments increasing 5% to nearly 387,000 tonnes and value up 6% at $1.63 billion.

Exports of US pork to Central America (especially Honduras and Nicaragua) saw volume tick up 1% to record highs of nearly 100,000 tonnes and value topping $241 million.   

As for US beef export demand, the Asian markets of Taiwan and China were highlights for the year, due in part to March marking the initiation of the US-China Phase One Economic and Trade Agreement, which cleared the way for more US cattle being eligible for export to China. This fueled a record-high volume of more than 42,800 tonnes of beef (four times the previous year’s volume) and value of $310 million (a year-over-year increase of 260%). 

Value of beef exports from the United States to Japan for the year were flat at $1.94 billion while volume dipped 2% to about 306,000 tonnes. According to USMEF, US beef realized an increase in market share in Japan, up from 41% in 2019 to 44% in 2020, largely due to reductions in duties as part of the US-Japan Trade Agreement.

Beef exports to South Korea remained mostly steady for the year, though shipments trailed the 2019 record by 4% at 246,231 tonnes with a value of $1.72 billion (6.5% lower). During the year, US beef gained ground in Korea, securing about 53% of its total imports. Korea’s demand for chilled beef from the US set a new record in 2020, totaling 62,825 tonnes, 14.5% higher year over year.

In Mexico, US beef demand was substantially lower than last year, but increased late in 2020. For the year, US exports to Mexico finished 18% below last year at 192,951 tonnes, valued at $852.6 million (down 23%). However, according to USMEF, beef muscle cut exports to Mexico in December topped 16,647 tonnes, which was the largest volume since 2009. Total December export volume was 27,230 tonnes, up 25% from a year ago, with value increasing 23% to $127 million.