March pork exports were the largest in 11 months at 195,898 mt, up 3% year-over-year. First-quarter exports reached 534,321 mt, up 2%. March export value ($480.4 million) was down 3% from a year ago but the highest since May 2015. First-quarter export value totaled $1.3 billion, 9% below last year's pace.
March exports of both U.S. pork and beef increased year-over-year in volume, according to statistics released by USDA and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF). March export values were lower than a year ago but trended upward, with both reaching a 2016 high.
"Exports showed an encouraging level of improvement in March, especially to our key Asian markets," said USMEF President and CEO Philip Seng. "The U.S. pork industry is now better positioned to capitalize on strong demand in China. Pork exports to Japan were also higher, though we are still in a very tough battle for market share as Japan's imports from Europe increased at a faster pace. On the beef side, exports continued to perform well in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. So while U.S. exports continue to recover from a down year in 2015, volumes are on track for improvement in most markets this year."
Pork Exports Surge to China/Hong Kong
March pork exports to the China/Hong Kong region were 50,695 mt, up 80% from a year ago and the largest volume since December 2011. For the first quarter, exports to China/Hong Kong increased 83% in volume (124,231 mt) and 54% in value ($233.7 million). But China's imports from all suppliers - especially the European Union - have been record-large in recent months, raising concerns that the market could soften despite the downward trend in domestic production.
Japan's pork imports from all suppliers showed renewed momentum in March, which helped boost U.S. exports to Japan above year-ago levels for the first time this year. Led by strong demand for U.S. chilled pork, March exports were 36,914 mt, up 3% from a year ago and the largest volume since May 2015. March export value increased 5% to $138.7 million. For the first quarter, exports to Japan were still lower year-over-year in both volume (94,982 mt, -9%) and value ($363.2 million, -6%).
Pork exports saw mixed results in North America in March, with exports to Mexico falling 17% in volume (51,452 mt) and 16% in value ($86.6 million). For the first quarter, exports to Mexico were down 11% (159,947 mt) and 18% ($262.7 million), respectively. March exports to Canada were the largest in six months at 18,871 mt, which was steady with last year. Export value slipped 4% to $68.7 million. First-quarter exports to Canada were down 3% from a year ago in volume (47,510 mt) and 9% lower in value ($174.2 million).
Driven by strong growth in the Philippines, first-quarter exports to the ASEAN region increased 2% in volume (9,658 mt) and 1% in value ($21.1 million). Exports to the Philippines were up 10% (8,007 mt) and 18% (17,021 mt), respectively.
First-quarter pork exports to Central America were also higher in both volume (15,491 mt, +24%) and value ($35.5 million, +9%), led by strong growth in Honduras and Guatemala.
First-quarter exports equated to 24% of total pork production and 20% for muscle cuts only - both steady with last year. But for March, the muscle cut ratio was 22% - the highest in 10 months. Export value averaged $44.41 per head in the first quarter, down 10% from the same period last year.