Current Progressive Cattle digital edition

Update on beef export markets

Contributed by Derrell S. Peel Published on 16 April 2021

Beef exports have evolved significantly in recent years in a very dynamic environment of global politics and trade policies, direct and indirect impacts of animal disease outbreaks, and growing beef preferences and consumption.

Compared to five years ago, total beef exports in 2020 were up by 15.6% over 2016. Total U.S. beef exports dropped 4.2% year over year in 2019 from the all-time peak level in 2018, with decreased exports to most major export destinations. The COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted global beef trade in 2020. Total beef exports dropped a further 2.3% year over year in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Thus far in 2021, the two-month total of beef exports for January and February is down 1.1% year over year. However, total annual beef exports for 2021 are forecast to increase modestly over last year. Figure 1 shows the market share of beef exports to major destinations in 2016 and 2020.

US beef export market share

Japan has been the largest U.S. beef export market since 2013 (and was for many years prior to 2004), with the 2020 market share at 28% of total exports. Beef exports to Japan grew at an average rate of 9.7% annually from 2016 to 2020, with peak exports in 2018 and a decrease in 2019 before rebounding modestly in 2020 despite pandemic disruptions. In the first two months of 2021, beef exports to Japan are down 11.5% year over year. 

South Korea has been the fastest and most consistently growing major U.S. beef export market in recent years. South Korea became the second largest beef export market in 2016, moving ahead of both Canada and Mexico. Beef exports to South Korea have increased by an average of 17.4% in the last five years, pushing the country to a nearly 23% market share in 2020, just behind Japan. In fact, in the first two months of 2021, beef exports to South Korea are up 15.1% year over year, pushing South Korea just ahead of Japan as the No. 1 beef export market so far this year. 

The combined China/Hong Kong market is the third-largest U.S. beef export market. Though the data is reported separately, it is important to look at the net total since the two really represent a single market. Reported separately, Hong Kong has been a major export market for U.S. for more than a decade. However, it has been recognized for a number of years that some of the exports to Hong Kong were ultimately transshipped into China. It was expected that, as exports to China began to grow, some of the increase would likely offset decreased exports to Hong Kong. Exports to China began at a very slow pace following access in 2017. Only in 2020 did beef exports to China jump sharply, and as expected, exports to Hong Kong have decreased. The market share of beef exports to China/Hong Kong was 11.5% in 2020, the same as in 2016. However, in 2020, the total included 35% exports to China with the balance to Hong Kong compared to 2016 when 100% of the exports were to Hong Kong. In the first two months of 2021, the China portion of the China/Hong Kong market is up 998% year over year, while Hong Kong is down 18.3%, with the China portion making up 67% of the two-month total. Total exports to China/Hong Kong in January and February 2021 are up 115% year over year. 

Mexico is currently the third-largest U.S. beef export market. Mexico’s economy has taken a serious hit since the last federal election and combined with the pandemic impacts of the past year – resulted in a 24.7% year-over-year decrease in beef exports in 2020. As recently as 2019, Mexico was the No. 2 beef export market, with a 14% market share. Recovery of beef exports to Mexico is likely to be slow with limited chances for improvement in 2021.

Beef exports to Canada have decreased an average of 2.3% annually in the last five years, dropping the country to the No. 5 beef export market currently. The market share of beef exports to Canada has declined from 12% to less than 10% (Figure 1) from 2016 to 2020. In the first two months of 2021, beef exports to Canada are down 7.5% year over year, and the country has an 8.9% share of total exports thus far in the year.

Beef exports to Taiwan have increased an average of 13.5% annually since 2016, increasing the country’s market share to 6.7% in 2020 (Figure 1). However, total beef exports to Taiwan were essentially unchanged in 2020 compared to the previous year and are down 23.8% in the first two months of 2021.  end mark

This originally appeared in the April 12, 2021, OSU Cow-Calf Corner newsletter.

Derrell S. Peel
  • Derrell S. Peel

  • Livestock Marketing Specialist
  • Oklahoma State University Extension