Economic Tidbits

Runaway Beef Exports

Last week, Tidbits observed that U.S. beef exports in 2021 exceeded $10 billion for the first time, a 38 percent stampede from 2020. Not only did the value of beef exports hit a record, but the volume of exports as well. The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) reports beef sales overseas equaled 3.45 billion pounds, up 17 percent from 2020 (Figure 1). In comparison, U.S. beef imports equaled 3.35 billion pounds, roughly the same as 2020. The result—the U.S. had a slight trade surplus in beef trade last year where exports outpaced imports.

Figure 1 shows the history of U.S. beef trade since 2000. Annual beef imports are shown by the blue line and exports by the red line. The U.S. typically exports high-value, muscle cuts while beef imports tend to be trimmings intended for processing into ground beef. Beef imports hit a high of 3.7 billion pounds in 2004 and a low at roughly 2.0 billion pounds in 2011 and have run between 3.0-3.5 billion pounds the past few years. Beef exports have grown steadily from a low in 2004, the year following the BSE incident, to last year’s high. Exports exceeded 3.0 billion pounds for the first time in 2018 and have been near or above that level since.

Figure 1. U.S. Imports/Exports of Beef, 2000-2021 (1,000 lbs.)

Source: NEFB graphic based on USDA ERS data

The top purchasers of U.S. beef last year were Japan, 826 million pounds, South Korea, 785 million pounds, and China (excluding Hong Kong), 541 million pounds (Figure 2). Purchases by China were up an astonishing 354 percent from 2020. The increased buying moved China from the twelfth-largest purchaser of U.S. beef to the third largest in one year. South Korean purchases were up 18 percent while purchases by Japan, Canada, and Mexico were down slightly. Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and Australia were the largest sellers of beef into the U.S. (Figure 3).

The latest projections from USDA suggest U.S. beef exports will soften in 2022, falling to 3.27 billion pounds, while imports will increase slightly to 3.37 billion pounds. Global beef demand is expected to remain relatively strong but greater supplies from South America and Oceania and lower production in the U.S. are expected to reduce exports. Lower beef production is also contributing to the higher projected imports.

Figure 2. Top U.S Beef Export Destinations, 2021

Source: NEFB graphic based on USDA ERS data

Figure 3. Top Beef Importers to the U.S., 2021

Source: NEFB graphic based on USDA ERS data

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