WASHINGTON – March was a banner month for US red meat exports, as demand fueled historically high value for pork while beef volume topped levels rarely seen since 2003. For the month, even US lamb export volume and value spiked, giving officials at the US Meat Export Federation (USMEF) cause for optimism a year after COVID-19 put the world’s economy and the meat industry in a state of volatility. 

The positive results in March capped a first quarter that indicates the negative impact of the pandemic may be easing in markets around the world, according to the USMEF.

“It’s very gratifying to see such an outstanding breakout month for US beef and pork exports,” said Dan Halstrom, USMEF president and chief executive officer. “Exports were off to a respectable start in 2021, considering the logistical and labor challenges the industry is facing and ongoing restrictions on the foodservice sector in many key markets. While these obstacles are not totally behind us, the March results show the situation is improving and the export totals better reflect the strong level of global demand for US red meat,” Halstrom said.

Based on US Department of Agriculture data collected by USMEF, beef export value surpassed the $800-million mark for the first time, totaling $801.9 million for the month, 14% higher than last year. Beef volume increased 8% in March, at 124,808 tonnes, while exports of beef muscle cuts established new monthly records for volume, at 98,986 tonnes (up 13% from 2020) and value, at $718.3 million (an increase of 17%).

Quarterly beef exports matched last year’s volume, at 333,348 tonnes at a value of $2.12 billion. Quarterly exports of beef muscle cuts ticked up 4% to 262,914 tonnes and value increased 5% to $1.9 billion.

Meanwhile, US pork exports for March set a record for value, increasing 4% over last year at $794.9 million as volume also established a record-high 294,724 tonnes (up 1% from last year). Muscle cuts of pork set new volume and value monthly records in March as well, at $689.2 million (4% higher) and 247,660 tonnes (up 2%). However, for Q1, pork exports remained 7% lower than last year’s volume of 782,620 tonnes and value at $2.07 billion. Likewise, quarterly pork muscle cuts trended down in volume by 7% at 659,420 tonnes and value lagged last year’s pace by 8% at $1.79 billion.

Halstrom pointed out the uptick in US exports of beef and pork variety meats in the month is a positive sign of a recovery among US processors. He said shipments of pork variety meats were even with levels in 2020 and the largest of the year for beef.

“The tight labor situation at the plant level has been especially hard on variety meat volumes,” Halstrom said. It’s important that the capture rate for variety meat continues to improve, as this is a critical component of the export product mix.”

Shipments of beef to South Korea represented the United States’ biggest value among its trading partners for the quarter. In March, beef volume increased 7% over last year to 24,104 tonnes with a value of $175.0 million, a 6% increase. Quarterly value totaled $503.9 million and volume topped 68,996 tonnes.

Coming off a lackluster 2020, US beef exports to China in March set a monthly volume record of 14,552 tonnes with a value of $109.9 million. For the quarter, beef exports spiked more than 1,500% over last year with volume of 31,058 tonnes and value topping $234 million.

The top market for US beef continues to be Japan, despite quarterly export volume dipping 9% to 75,409 tonnes and value of $485.2 million, a decrease of 7%.

For March, pork exports to Mexico increased 5% over the same month last year, to 66,174 tonnes, as value increased 21% to $130.2 million. Quarterly pork exports to Mexico were 4% below last year’s pace at 187,012 tonnes and down 1% at $345 million.

Pork exports to Japan in March topped 40,746 tonnes, up 11% from last year, while export value increased to $169.5 million, up 13%. Quarterly pork exports to Japan slipped ahead of last year’s first quarter with 104,828 tonnes (up 1%) and a value of $436.2 million (up 2%).

Pork exports from the United States to Central America followed a record 2020 Q1 with a 47% increase in the first quarter of 2021 with a volume of just under 36,000 tonnes and a value of $89.7 million. Demand was especially strong in Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and El Salvador.