Expanding a product’s export market brings with it many benefits. Certainly U.S. pork producers can attest to that as you have reaped tremendous rewards over the past two decades.

U.S. pork has set export sales records in each of the past 15 years, which has given you an extra $4 for every hog marketed. The United States now exports more than 15 percent of its annual pork production, compared with 7 percent in 2000. By 2016, that level is expected to grow to 20 percent of production.

Also by that time, the U.S. share of the global pork export market could approach 30 percent. This would mean that for every 3.4 pounds of pork traded worldwide, 1 pound would come from the United States. That’s a sobering thought.

 But perhaps the most stunning point is that the U.S. pork industry is 17 percent larger today than it would be if current export sales mirrored those of 1986.

Let’s pause to reflect on that for a moment.

What’s more, future industry growth is dependent on moving even deeper into the global export market. 

Of course, with the many benefits come some very real risks. I know you’ve heard that many times before, but I’m not sure how well we all take that message to heart. It’s human nature to overlook such cautionary words, especially when progress is going so well.

Last month, the U.S. pork industry got a harsh look at the type of obstacles that can surface in international trade. I’m talking about China’s decision to remove 15 U.S. meatpacking plants from its importer roster. Country officials are pointing to ractopamine residues as the problem.

Now, China does have a zero-tolerance policy on ractopamine, but it hasn’t been an issue until recently. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration long ago approved ractopamine use in swine, allowing trace levels without concern, and that’s sufficient for most countries. Last month, Taiwan even dropped its zero-tolerance policy. 

The Chinese tend to paint ractopamine with the same brush as clenbuterol, “an entirely different drug,” according to an FDA official. While both are classified as beta-agonists, ractopamine comes from a different branch of the family tree.

So why now? You would think with China’s laundry list of product quality and safety issues that have surfaced this year, the country wouldn’t be pointing fingers. But the growing unrest about Chinese products in the United States and elsewhere in the world is exactly why China’s actions against U.S. pork smacks of trade retaliation.

No, this isn’t the first trade issue that the U.S. pork industry has faced and it won’t be the last. The point is, with the export market claiming 15 percent of U.S. pork supplies, these hiccups have much more impact. Perhaps by the time you read this, it will all be resolved — but probably not.

Of course, timing is everything. You see, China is facing serious pork shortages and extremely high prices due to “blue-ear disease,” which has killed more than 40,000 pigs this year. Many farmers have stopped raising hogs for fear they may be stricken with the illness. Last year, China produced 53 million tons of pork — more than twice as much as the world’s No. 2 producer (the 27-nation European Union).

Pork is a staple in the Chinese diet, and prices have been running as much as 86 percent above year-ago levels. China is expected to get into the pork import market in a big way. Market analysts were looking for its U.S. purchases to double that of a year ago. But now that’s in question.

With large hog supplies on pace for this fall, the U.S. hog market could feel some pressure if China keeps the lid on U.S. pork. So welcome to the good, the bad and the ugly of global trade. You are real players in this market, and there is a real price to pay when problems arise.

What this means to you on the farm is that you have to pay extra attention to getting the production details exactly right. Animal-health products raise the most questions in international trade (whether valid or not), and that means you and your employees need to understand and apply proper use protocols. You need to become well versed with Japan’s Maximum Residue Limits. (Follow this link to to learn more.)

One unintentional slip-up can shut down U.S. pork’s export market. This is why training employees thoroughly is critical to your operation and the industry. It’s also why it’s important to be able to keep those well-trained employees on staff.

Other issues, such as animal identification, could evolve into trade challenges. 

For now, the trade issue with China is simply a glimpse of what could become more commonplace. Consider it a word of caution.