According to the USDA's Livestock, Dairy and Poultry report, U.S. trade data released in carcass-weight volumes by USDA on Friday, February 10, 2012 showed December pork exports at 493 million pounds, 23 percent above a year earlier, mostly due to very large shipments to Asia—China in particular. Total exports for 2011 were 5.2 billion pounds, 23 percent above totals in 2010.

The 10 largest foreign destinations for U.S. pork last year are shown below. Clearly, shipments to China pushed the U.S. 2011 export total into territory not heretofore seen.

Chinese purchases of U.S. pork were a means used by China to tame pork price inflation which came about largely as a consequence of the Chinese pork sector’s serious, ongoing problems in controlling various lethal swine diseases.

It is possible that the incidence of such diseases as FMD and PRRS will recede as Chinese pork production shifts from its current model, characterized by millions of small “backyard” operations, to a smaller number of larger, integrated, production units with stringent biosecurity and herd health programs in place.

Such top-tobottom structural transformation will be slow in coming however, given the scale of the task. Until then, it is likely that large pork exporters as the United States, Canada, the E.U., and Brazil will function as “safety valves” for China, implying the continued possibility high volume and price volatility as exporters adjust to Chinese presence—or absence—in international markets.

Total U.S. Pork Exports: 2011, 2010

  Country 2011 2010 2011/2010 2011
Exp. Shares
Exp. Shares
    (Million pounds) (%) (%) (%)
  World  5,193  4,224  23  -  -
1 Japan  1,480  1,284  15  29  30
2 Mexico  1,038  1,037  0  20  25
3 China  668  156  328  13  4
4 Canada  507  433  17  10  10
5 South Korea  454  220  106  9  5
6 Russia  191  154  24  4  4
7 Australia  189  150  27  4  4
8 Hong Kong  148  202  -27  3  5
9 Philippines  106  130  -19  2  3
10 Honduras  56 60  -6  1  1

As in past years, Japan was the number 1 buyer of U.S. pork products in 2011. U.S. exports increased 15 percent, year-over-year. Japanese data indicate that total pork imports in 2011 increased by more than 5 percent.

While Japanese purchases from major U.S. competitors—Canada and Denmark—declined in 2011, imports from the United States increased, according to the Japanese data. It is likely that the relatively low-valued US dollar exchange rate—vis-à-vis other competing pork exporting countries—was an important factor in increased U.S. volume shipments in 2011.

Although Mexico held its customary spot as the number 2 buyer of U.S. pork in 2011, its purchases of U.S. pork were flat compared to 2010, at just over1 billion pounds. This is a departure from past buying patterns when as recently as 2009, Mexico increased its share of U.S. exports.

Slower than expected economic growth, a declining value of the peso since the third quarter of 2011, and larger imports of U.S. poultry may account for some of the slowdown in pork exports last year.