For nearly two decades, the trend in U.S.pork exports has been up. Last year marked the 16th consecutive year of record export sales. Today, the industry ships 15 percent of its annual production overseas.

The question is, will that momentum continue? USDA and the U.S. Meat Export Federation both predict it will.

Last month, USDA released its beef and pork trade outlook for 2008 through 2017, and USMEF added its perspectives. It’s worth noting that USDA’s 10-year outlook is based on what would be expected to happen under “a continuation of current farm legislation and specific assumptions about external conditions.” Also, USDA’s data is based on carcass weight equivalent and does not include variety meats.

So let’s take a look at what could unfold.

United States — The United Statesis expected to lead the global pork export market during the next 10 years, as its share of global exports increases from an estimated 28 percent last year to 32 percent in 2017.

Despite forecasted production declines in 2009, 2010 and 2011, USDA expects pork exports to continue to grow steadily. Strong and growing pork demand across the globe and a weak U.S. dollar will support export sales.

USDA originally projected U.S.pork exports to increase 5 percent in 2008 and 3 percent annually into 2017. However, USDA has upped that forecast to a 16 percent increase in 2008. Several factors influenced that jump, says Erin Daley, USMEF manager of research and analysis. Those include China’s domestic production and market access restrictions, the recovery of exports to Mexicoand continued over-quota exports to Russia.  

Domestically, U.S.pork production’s projected 5 percent increase this year is expected to contribute to moderate pork prices and promote a 1-pound-per-capita increase in domestic pork consumption.

USMEF outlines a slightly more optimistic export outlook beyond 2008 than USDA’s. It looks for 4 percent to 5 percent annual gains from 2009 to 2014. Daley believes the same factors that have led to the improved 2008 outlook will drive export gains in the next six years. USMEF’s projection assumes that the South Korea/United States free-trade agreement will be approved in 2009 and that exports to Japanwill grow about 3 percent annually.

USDA forecasts 39 percent growth in U.S. pork exports during the next 10 years, or an additional 536,000 metric tons (1.18 billion pounds), reaching a total of 1.9 million metric tons (nearly 4.2 billion pounds) in 2017. That compares to 2007, estimated at 3 billion pounds.

Of course, the United Statesisn’t in this market alone. Here’s a look at how its competitors may stack up.

Brazil — USDA has projected Brazil’s pork exports in 2008 to be 584,000 metric tons, but that’s been increased to 775,000 metric tons (1.7 billion pounds). That’s an 8 percent increase from 2007 levels at 715,000 metric tons (1.57 billion pounds).

Last year, Brazil exported 24 percent of its annual pork production, and that’s expected to grow by 4 percent in 2008. Domestic consumption is pegged to increase only 2 percent. Currently, Brazilians eat 26.4 pounds of pork per person on a carcass-weight basis, versus 81.4 pounds of beef and 83.6 pounds of poultry.

Brazil’s pork export growth is expected to slow to 1 percent in 2009, followed by a 3 percent drop in 2010, but then bounce back to average 2 percent to 5 percent annual growth through 2017.

Russiais Brazil’s largest pork customer, accounting for 45 percent of Brazil’s exports in 2007.   Those exports benefit from a lower duty (11.25 percent versus 15 percent for the United States).

The other top destinations for Brazilian pork in 2007 included Hong Kongat 18 percent, and the Ukraineat 10 percent. Brazilhas negotiated direct access to China, but does not have any approved plants at this time.  Smaller volumes of pork go to Singapore, Argentina, Angola, Albania, Uruguay, Moldovaand the United Arab Emirates.

Brazildoes not have access to most of the top markets for U.S.pork — Japan, Mexico, Canada, Korea, Australiaand the European Union — because of the country’s disease status, and that will impact future growth prospects. Brazil’s currency (the real) has strengthened, which could impact future sales. For example, November 2007 export values increased 16 percent from November 2006, but export volumes increased only 2.6 percent.

Canada — USDA has cut its pork export forecast for Canada, with new estimates showing flat sales through 2017. The strong Canadian dollar has had a significant impact on its livestock and meat trade. High input costs aren’t helping matters, and growers are likely to reduce production in the years ahead.

Canadaexported 20 percent more market hogs in 2007 than in 2006, and feeder pig exports increased 12 percent for a combined total of 10 million head. This reduced Canadian pork production and pork product exports. Meanwhile, U.S.pork exports to Canadaincreased.

The one-two punch of a strong Canadian dollar and high input costs will continue to limit Canadian pork production and pork exports.

European Union —  E.U. exports also have been revised downward, showing a 10 percent drop in 2008 (totaling 1,147,000 metric tons or about 2.5 billion pounds). Those exports are not expected to surpass volumes posted in 2006 until 2016. In all, the E.U.’s export volumes for 2016 are pegged to be 1,281,000 metric tons (2.82 billion pounds), down from last year’s estimate of 1,617,000 metric tons (3.56 billion pounds).

According to Daley, that decline reflects an expected contraction in E.U. pork production. The European Commission’s reintroduction of export subsidies for chilled and frozen pork exports in November 2007 is one sign of the tough times facing E.U. pork producers. High feed and input costs combined with environmental and animal housing regulations have led to negative returns in the industry.  

The E.U. has historically been the world’s largest pork exporter, but the combination of higher production costs and increased domestic demand — partially due to adding new member states — has toned down export forecasts from both USDA and the European Commission. USDA now shows U.S.pork exports surpassing E.U. exports in 2007 and continuing that pattern into 2017.

Of course, one never knows what hiccups might erupt with overseas buyers, and these predictions are based on a handful of assumptions that could change direction in the years ahead. But it’s fairly safe to say that the inroads that U.S.pork has already made in the export market will continue to pay dividends.