Japan and Mexico might be kings of the U.S. pork export market, but having a diverse number of markets is key to moving U.S. pork. Russia is one such market, experiencing something of a Renaissance in late 2004.

Through November 2004, U.S. pork exports to Russia were up 246 percent from the same time period in 2003. Sales actually spiked in November, with that month’s U.S. pork export value up more than 300 percent from October 2004 levels. The totals are even more impressive compared to November 2003, which was $12 million less in value than November 2004. U.S. pork export
volume for November 2004 was 10 times higher than for that same month in 2003.

While there could be several reasons for the November spike, one prospect was a foot-and-mouth disease scare in Brazil, which is a major pork supplier to Russia.

It caused Russian importers to scramble for product. There were lots of questions surrounding Brazil’s pork availability, which could damage its long-term reputation as a quality pork exporter. In 2005, Russia has now allowed pork to be imported from at least one Brazilian state. As of this writing, export numbers are not yet available to determine what impact it is having on U.S. pork sales to Russia.

Opinions vary as it relates to Russia’s prospect as a viable pork market for U.S. producers.

“I’m not very optimistic about the long-term Russian outlook,” says Ron Plain, University of Missouri agricultural economist. “Russian importers usually look for the lowest-cost product, and Brazil has a competitive advantage to provide that.”

While it’s certainly true that Russia is a cost-conscious market and low-cost products dominate, that doesn’t represent the entire market.

“The volume of products going to Russia may be low-cost pork for processing, but there are a lot of premium cuts that drive up the value of U.S. pork shipped there as well,” says Lynn Heinze, vice president, U.S. Meat Export Federation. “The Russian market is a blend of low-priced cuts and premium cuts for upscale restaurants.”

To promote U.S. pork to the Russian market, USMEF officials stress the safety and quality of whole U.S. pork cuts. Educating the Russians that quality also is important for processed pork, could take some time, says Heinze. For now, Russia provides U.S. pork some diversity from its leading markets — Japan and Mexico.

“What we’ve tried to do is broaden the portfolio of markets for U.S. pork,” says Heinze. “Russia is a different and complimentary market to our other markets, because they like different cuts.”

U.S. pork exports have had a rich history with Russia. In the late 1990s, Russia was a strong market for U.S. pork, but then its economy collapsed.

“A combination of a strong U.S. dollar, a weakening Russian economy, and the Russian government still looking for the best way to handle its import system, have hurt U.S. pork exports in the past,” says Plain.

More challenges surfaced in 2002/2003 when trade disagreements over other products such as steel affected U.S. meat shipments to Russia.

“In the international world of politics nothing stands on its own,” says Heinze. “But in 2003, U.S. Trade Representatives negotiated an agreement with Russia that should prove positive in the long term.”

Last year, the United States exported more than $2 billion worth of pork, so U.S. pork exports are big business, and they influence live-hog prices. Every slice of market share the United States can capture in the pork export race helps, even if it’s only temporary. Building a reputation of a reliable trading partner that supplies an outstanding product may push Russia from a variable to a stable market for U.S. pork.