China takes a liking to U.S. beef

Prime Cuts with Steve Kay

U.S. beef accounted for 3.4 per cent of China’s first-quarter imports, up from less than one per cent at this time in 2020.

Chinese consumers are rapidly taking a liking to U.S. beef. China reopened its market to the U.S. in February last year after a Phase One deal between the two countries removed nearly all the technical barriers that had prevented most U.S. beef from entering China. Volume was tiny for several months but began to pick up in the fourth quarter. They have been on a tear since then. 

March, the latest month with actual data, saw beef exports to China far above last year’s low totals. They reached a new monthly record of 14,552 metric tonnes, valued at US$109.9 million. This pushed first-quarter exports more than 1,500 per cent above last year’s pace in both volume (31,058 mt) and value (US$234.1 million). Exports increased about 25 per cent from the strong fourth quarter of 2020. 

U.S. beef accounted for 3.4 per cent of China’s first-quarter imports, up from less than one per cent at this time last year. The U.S. is now the largest supplier of grain-fed beef to China. In just 16 months, China has become the sixth-largest export market for U.S. beef. Additional U.S. plants were approved for export to China in April, raising the prospects for further growth in coming months, says the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF). As of May 7, 66 plants were approved for export to China. These included slaughter, fabrication, processing and further processing plants. 

U.S. red meat exports overall had a magical March, with beef and pork shipments each posting their highest monthly value on record. Pork exports and shipments of beef muscle cuts also set new volume records in March, says USMEF. Beef exports totalled 124,808 mt, up eight per cent from a year ago and the second largest of the post-BSE era. Export value broke the US$800 million monthly mark for the first time at US$801.9 million, up 14 per cent year-over-year. 

Beef muscle cut exports set new monthly records for both volume (98,986 mt, up 13 per cent from a year ago) and value (US$718.3 million, up 17 per cent). For the first quarter, beef exports pulled even with last year’s pace at 333,348 mt, valued at US$2.12 billion. For beef muscle cuts, first-quarter exports increased four per cent to 262,914 mt, valued at US$1.9 billion (up five per cent), says USMEF. 

It is very gratifying to see such an outstanding breakout month for U.S. beef and pork exports, noted USMEF president and CEO Dan Halstrom in early May. Exports were off to a respectable start in 2021, considering the logistical and labour challenges the industry is facing and ongoing restrictions on the foodservice sector in many key markets. While these obstacles are not totally behind the industry, the March results show the situation is improving and the export totals better reflect the strong level of global demand for U.S. red meat, he said. 

Beef exports to South Korea were strong again in March at 24,104 mt, up seven per cent from a year ago, and were valued at US$175.9 million (up six per cent), says USMEF. For the first quarter, exports were eight per cent ahead of last year’s pace in both volume (68,996 mt) and value (US$503.9 million), making Korea this year’s leading value destination for U.S. beef. Korea is buying more U.S. chuck rolls, short plates, shoulder clods and loin cuts, says USMEF. 

Japan remains the top volume market for U.S. beef, with first-quarter exports nine per cent below last year’s pace at 75,409 mt, valued at US$485.2 million (down seven per cent), says USMEF. March exports were affected by a higher safeguard tariff rate, which was triggered March 18 and remained in effect for 30 days. Exports are now growing again.

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A North American view of the meat industry. Steve Kay is publisher and editor of Cattle Buyers Weekly.

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