If the U.S. pork industry is to grow, it will need to do so through exports. That’s because domestic pork consumption in recent years has stabilized.

Sure, the U.S. population will grow, and there’s room to expand pork’s presence in fast-food restaurants. But don’t look for dramatic consumption gains in the United States.

On the other hand, many countries are unable to keep pace with their own pork demand. Others are facing pressures that limit their agricultural industries. Economies of some nations are improving, and with extra dollars in their pockets, those consumers will upgrade their diets, eat out more often and change where and how they shop.

Last month, I went on a whirlwind tour of Japan, Hong Kong and China, and witnessed those developments in varying degrees.

Heading into the trip I was a bit skeptical. Our staff monitors pork exports closely. We read reports, check statistics, watch trade negotiations and sit through briefings. My point is – we get plenty of export information. But like most things, seeing is understanding.

Actually seeing the culture and the market firsthand provides a perspective about the opportunities and challenges facing U.S. pork that you simply can’t get sitting at a desk in the United States. In an ideal world, every U.S. pork producer could take the same trip I did. In lieu of that, I will attempt to share the highlights with you in the coming months.

One of the more striking points that came out of the trip is that U.S. pork is in good hands. You have exceptional people representing your product in Japan, Hong Kong and China. I’m talking about native people who work for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, and who are in part funded by your pork checkoff dollars. They are dedicated, knowledgeable and well connected. They beat the bushes daily to expand your market, and most importantly they know what works and what doesn’t.

Expanding U.S. pork’s presence in those countries is about so much more than negotiating trade agreements and reducing tariffs. Truly those are important first steps, but you can open up a market and still not get anything sold because you don’t understand the culture or the needs of the people.

Relationships are critical – that was especially evident in China – and the on-site USMEF staffers are the cornerstone. They work intimately with businesspersons importing, distributing, using and selling U.S. pork. They supply promotional materials, assist with market-access issues, line up suppliers, provide follow-up services and help educate consumers about U.S. pork.

It’s not unlike your expectations when you buy a piece of equipment or animal-health product. You expect technical support to be there when you need it. That support could make the difference between making a profit and tallying a loss. That’s true for any business today, and it holds true in the pork export market.

From 1991 to 2001, U.S. pork export volume increased 271 percent. Looking to the future, the National Pork Board has set its sites on 15 percent annual growth. A lofty goal, but with USMEF, NPB and the national pork checkoff involvement it’s a feasible one. 

Take checkoff away, however, and you’re done. U.S. pork will go nowhere in those three markets or any other.

On a related note, I must relay my experience with U.S. Customs at O’Hare airport.

Our tour in China included stops at wet markets – open-air markets were meat is sold – and a live-hog auction. I checked the box on the customs’ form indicating that I had been around live animals in China. The customs agent didn’t hesitate and simply waved me on.

Another member of our team verbally told the agent that she visited live hogs in China. His response – “That should be fine.”

We were stunned by his apathy. Hey, at least there were signs telling travelers about foot-and-mouth disease.

Another companion returned the next day, and had an entirely different experience. The agents disinfected her shoes and other clothing.

This is one example, but it will take only one misstep. Clearly, the U.S. livestock herd remains vulnerable.