U.S. pork sold to foreign customers in 2011 topped $6 billion for the first time. That will be a tough record to break, especially with global economic uncertainties and world pork production pegged to surpass last year’s level by 2.7 percent.

Still, for the first three months of this year, U.S. pork exports were up 20 percent in volume and 8 percent in value. What’s more, March set a record by exporting 60 percent of U.S. slaughter and accounting for $60 per slaughter hog value.

While setting continuous records for nearly two decades can create a challenge, the president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, Phillip Seng, likes a challenge. “We do feel the first three months are somewhat a predicate of the rest of the year,” he told Pork Network. “The international marketplace is exciting, and there is probably not a more exciting development for the pork industry in the past 20 years,” he added.

At this week’s MEF annual meeting, Seng outlined a few significant issues for the future of pork exports.

  • “We have our challenges,” he pointed to the April BSE development in California. While not specific to pork, his point is to emphasize what good work the government, associations and industry did to ensure that customers were informed and the issue was addressed quickly and effectively. “I have to compliment USDA and their efforts to keep markets open. Within the first 36 hours, the issue was handled very well and it kept markets open,” Seng noted. He said the first 36 hours are the most critical, because once markets start to close, it cascades. But MEF staff actions within the foreign markets also were key. “It’s one thing to win policy, it’s another thing to win the public,” Seng added.
  • Optimism about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) process that’s currently underway. “Anything that helps with free trade and improves trade negotiations is a positive step,” Seng said.
  • From there, he pointed to the free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, and the future prospects those present. Seng cited the lifting of duties on pork and the reduction of border protections as being very positive. “We project moving more (pork) product into South America, especially Colombia,” he said. “The interest is there and we’re talking about very high quality product.”
  • Activities in the Russian theater make for interesting speculation. “As Russia enters the World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, it will have to conform to trade norms,” Seng noted. That means being more open to trade standards and greater transparency. “There is good opportunity there,” he added.
  • The European Union has always been a challenge, essentially keeping its access closed to the United States meat sectors. Recently, the market has enlarged its quotas, opening the door to more worthy competition. “We hope our efforts will pay off in this market as we go forward,” Seng said.

“Overall, we have our challenges, but we also have opportunities,” he noted.  This year could see a slight decline in pork exports, but Seng expects them to equal last year’s value level of just over $6 billion. Markets most likely to show strength are Mexico, Russia and Canada. The Asian markets are likely to be down, following what was a red-hot year in 2011.