Dillon Feuz: U.S. beef around the world
December 17, 2010
Exports of U.S. beef have been very strong this year. Through the end of October, total exports have been up 22 percent compared to 2009. While we are not quite yet back to the record export level set in 2003, we are getting much closer to that level.
The top four export destinations in order are Mexico, Canada, Japan and South Korea on a tonnage basis. On a value basis, Canada is number one, followed by Mexico and then Japan and South Korea. These four markets account for nearly 70 percent of total exports. During 2010, exports to Mexico have been 14 percent lower than 2009, Canada was steady with a year earlier, exports to Japan have been 25 percent higher than in 2009, and exports into South Korea have been 115 percent higher than 2009. That is great news for beef producers and it is one of the major factors supporting the higher cattle prices we are currently enjoying in the industry.
Vietnam, Taiwan and Hong Kong are the next three largest export markets and they account for another 15 percent of total U.S. exports. Vietnam has been down 13 percent this year, but Taiwan and Hong Kong have been up 44 percent and 56 percent this year compared to 2009. The next two largest markets are Russia and Egypt, which account for an additional 7.5 percent of total exports. These two markets grew by 593 percent and 101 percent respectively.
What about Europe? How much U.S. beef is exported there? Exports into the European Union are up 70 percent this year over last year. But while that sounds impressive, keep in mind that total exports into the European Union only account for about 3 percent of our total exports. However, the small volume of exports into the European Union probably has a lot more to do with politics than beef taste and consumer preference.
In October, U.S. beef was compared against beef from Argentina, France, Germany and Ireland at the SIAL exhibition in Paris, France. The SIAL is the world’s largest international food trade show, and the U.S. Meat Export Federation was there to promote US beef. They conducted a blind taste test of steaks from each of the countries mentioned above. Care was taken to select some of the best product from the competitors and to get a representative sample of beef from the U.S. that qualifies for the European market (non-hormone-treated cattle). Three different U.S. steak cuts were used: striploin, top blade and flank steak. The steaks from the best possible striploins were used for Argentina, France, Germany and Ireland.
The results – may I have the envelope, please? The winner in a landslide: U.S. beef. The three different U.S. steak cuts used in the taste panel consistently scored in the Top 3, followed by the Argentine offering and then the Irish steak. The offering from Germany and France were consistently rated the poorest by participants. While the steaks were not labeled, nearly 40 percent of participants correctly identified the U.S. steaks due to the distinct taste and texture (that would be corn-fed and tender). Do I think the European Union is our next big market? Probably not. They will likely continue their protectionist policies and try and keep most U.S. beef out of their markets.
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But, we do have a recognizable, top-quality, preferred-by-most, unequaled U.S. beef product to market to the world. The combination of herd genetics, cattle management and corn-feeding has given U.S. beef a distinct and very desirable flavor profile. I have tasted beef from Europe, Argentina, Australia and a few other countries. Prepared correctly, some of that beef is acceptable. None of it has matched the flavor and tenderness of most U.S. beef I have consumed.
I know that there is a push by some to market more grass-fed beef in the U.S. There is a small proportion, perhaps 15-20 percent of the U.S. population that prefers this product. Those producers who want to fill this niche should do so. I hope they can even charge consumers a premium for their product. Calls for the U.S. beef industry as a whole to reduce corn feeding and feed more cattle on grass would not only cause many U.S.-beef consumers to turn away from U.S. beef, but would also result in the loss of many of our export markets. If we try to compete with Argentina and Australia for grass-fed beef markets, they will beat us badly. They can raise the product cheaper and their grass-fed product is likely equal or superior to ours.
Countries as diverse as South Korea, Japan, Egypt, Hong Kong (China) and Russia are discovering or rediscovering the flavor of U.S. beef and are importing more beef this year than last year. All indications at this point in time indicate this trend will continue into 2011. To all you U.S. cattle producers, I say give yourselves a pat on the back for a job well-done (but make my steak medium rare). Give your friends some quality U.S. beef for Christmas. Merry Christmas.