U.S. meat exports are surging even as the industry is struggling to meet domestic demand because of coronavirus outbreaks at processing plants that have sickened hundreds of workers and caused companies to scramble to improve conditions.
Although the situation could cause concern that American workers are risking their health to meet foreign demand, experts say it shouldn’t because much of the meat sold to other countries is cuts that Americans generally don’t eat.
And at least one of the four major processors says it has reduced exports during the pandemic.
If companies manage to keep their workers healthy and plants operating, there should be plenty of supply to satisfy domestic and foreign markets, according to industry officials.
“I really feel like the industry is well positioned to serve all of its customers both here and abroad,” said Joe Schuele, a spokesman for the industry trade group U.S. Meat Export Federation.
Meat exports, particularly pork exports to China, grew significantly throughout the first three months of the year.
This was due partly to several new trade agreements that were completed before the coronavirus outbreak led to the temporary closure of dozens of U.S. meatpacking plants in April and May and to increased absenteeism at many plants that reduced their output.
The Meat Export Federation said pork exports jumped 40 percent and beef exports grew 9 percent during the first three months of the year.
Chicken exports, meanwhile, grew by 8 percent in the first quarter.
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Complete figures weren’t yet available for April, but Agriculture Department figures for the last week of April show that pork exports jumped by 40 percent as shipments to China and Japan surged and exports to Mexico and Canada remained strong.
Beef exports declined by 22 percent in that last week of April.
China’s demand for imported pork has risen over the past year because its own pig herds were decimated by an outbreak of African swine fever, and China pledged to buy $40 billion in U.S. agricultural products per year under a trade pact signed in January.
China also became the fourth-largest market for American poultry in the first quarter after it lifted a five-year ban on those products.
A trade agreement with Japan and a new North American free trade agreement also helped boost exports.
Part of the reason why exports have continued to be so strong this spring is that much of the meat headed overseas was bought up to six months ahead of time — before the virus outbreak took hold in the United States.
“... China had already made these purchases and then COVID-19 hit. They had actually pre-purchased a lot of this before the plant problems hit,” said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University.
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