WASHINGTON – US exporters of beef, pork and poultry are under major shipping pressures due to massive, growing backlogs of containers containing such products in key West Coast ports — most importantly, the Port of Long Beach, said Barry Carpenter, North American Meat Institute (NAMI) president and CEO, during a Jan. 20 media teleconference. This is the result of an eight-month long, ongoing labor dispute between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union regarding reaching an agreement on a new contract for longshore workers.

Both parties have been in negotiations since May 2014 plus a federal mediator agreed on Jan. 6 to intervene in the talks. But back-ups of containers at the five largest West Coast ports have reached levels that are no longer sustainable, according to the PMA, the shippers’ negotiating agent.

“That statement suggests that the eight-month labor dispute may be moving closer to a work shutdown like the one that closed 29 West Coast ports for 10 days in 2002,” Carpenter warned. “This is obviously very significant to us.”

The US exports more than 200,000 metric tons of beef, pork and poultry per month to key Asian markets at a value of more than $700 million per month through these important West Coast ports. “In 2014, roughly $8.4 billion of US meat and poultry cleared West Coast ports, for more than $160 million per week,” Carpenter said.

Chilled US meat and poultry are most at risk, he added. More than 10,000 metric tons of US beef and 16,000 metric tons of US pork are exported chilled to Asia each month. “This product is likely stalled under the current situation…some exporters report they have containers held up there since Christmas,” Carpenter said. “As you know, the short shelf-life of chilled beef and pork make timely deliveries very critical. We are at a point now where we are actually starting to lose products.”

What’s worse, a quick return to shipping normalcy isn’t in the cards. “If the situation at the Port of Oakland were resolved tomorrow, it would take at least 45 days to clear the backlog of containers,” Carpenter said.

Despite a number of actions being taken by industry, including communicating the seriousness of this issue for industry to the US Department of Agriculture and requesting a meeting with US Trade Ambassador Michael Froman, among other things, gridlock remains and the situation is worsening.

“We believe that President Barack Obama must intervene,” Carpenter said. “A cooling-off period is needed to resolve this issue. It’s difficult to get motivated to support future trade agreements and trade opportunities while we have this crisis hanging over our heads — which is also having a serious financial impact on our industry.”

Carpenter also said NAMI will continue to closely monitor the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommendations, as well as the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s evaluation of red and processed meat consumption. “We will continue to monitor the processes and provide scientifically sound commentary in an effort to ensure that the new [dietary] recommendations reflect the important nutritional contributions meat and poultry make in a healthy, balanced diet,” he added.

In addressing mandatory country-of-origin labeling, Carpenter said, “During 2015, we will support efforts to…either repeal or amend the May 2013 labeling rule to make it compliant with WTO [rulings on this issue].”