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US Meat Industry Remains Optimistic about International Markets

26 May 2015

US - While US meat exports face imposing challenges in 2015, this has not dampened the industry’s enthusiasm for international marketing.

This was the prevailing theme throughout the US Meat Export Federation (USMEF) Board of Directors Meeting, which concluded Friday in San Antonio, Texas.

“The mood is very positive, despite all the challenges we have faced in the first few months of this year,” said USMEF Chair Leann Saunders.

“We heard a lot this week about the large volume of protein that’s going to be entering the market in the next 10 years, and our members know the international markets are essential to their ability to move that protein into the value-added marketplace.”

Red meat exports endured a difficult first quarter in 2015, slowed by West Coast port congestion, intense competition in key markets and a very strong US dollar. But Saunders said USMEF members are still confident in their investments in international marketing for beef, pork and lamb.

“They are definitely in this for the long haul and understand this is not a sprint, but a marathon,” she said.

“It’s really been a pleasure to interact with USMEF members this week and see the positive outlook they have for the future of our industry.”

The opening speaker at USMEF’s closing business session was Al Almanza, deputy under secretary for food safety at USDA (pictured).

“What you all do at USMEF is so, so important for United States trade, our relationships with other countries and the ability of those countries to gain access to the safest meat and poultry supply in the world,” Mr Almanza said.

“Your work is evidence of a strong international commitment to science-based food safety policies that protect public health and facilitate trade.”

Mr Almanza provided status reports on a number of issues that have recently interrupted US meat exports, including delisting of pork plants by China.

He noted that USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) staff members have prepared detailed responses on each establishment for review by Chinese regulators, documented the corrective actions taken, and asked that the plants be reinstated immediately based on FSIS’s review.

Mr Almanza also discussed disruptions at the US-Mexico border that have resulted in delisting of some US plants. He said USDA is working with Mexican officials to develop protocols allowing them to work together to avoid these situations in the future.

Mr Almanza was also asked about efforts to improve market access for US lamb, which is currently shut out of several key markets due to restrictions dating back to the detection of BSE in the United States. He responded that USDA expects to see progress on this issue within the next two months.

In an industry perspectives panel discussion, representatives of the beef, pork and lamb industries shared their thoughts on the importance of red meat exports to producers, as well as the challenges faced by their respective industries. Panelists were Cattlemen’s Beef Board CEO Polly Ruhland, National Pork Board CEO Chris Hodges and Greg Ahart, vice president of sales for Superior Farms and a member of the American Lamb Board.

Mr Ahart noted that the lamb industry has recently stepped up its efforts to increase exports, and values the work performed by USMEF.

“USMEF staff has been amazing to work with,” said Mr Ahart.

“The Middle East chef training program, the promotional materials made available and retail promotions in Mexico have all been a tremendous help.”

Unlike US beef and pork, the U.S lamb industry isn’t focused on growing international markets, Mr Ahart explained. Right now it’s all about simply getting access to markets.

“The cow that stole Christmas also stole Japan from the US lamb industry,” Mr Ahart said. “As beef trade was restored into Japan, lamb was not.”

Hodges explained the impact of porcine epidemic diarrhoea virus (PEDV) and how the pork industry is dealing with it. PEDV caused the pig crop to drop dramatically in 2014, while the breeding herd surged because the outbreak led producers to think they would need more sows to maintain their level of production.

“The other thing that happened was that we had record profits in 2014, which led to expansion,” Mr Hodges said.

“Kind of odd, isn’t it? We had the worst disease in history, and we walked out of 2014 with profits we had never seen before. Welcome to the pork industry.”

Increased US pork production requires an emphasis on increasing pork exports, Mr Hodges said.

“If our production is going to go up 6 to 7 percent, exports are going to be very important, because Americans can’t consume that much pork,” Mr Hodges said.

He also pointed out that the West Coast port backlog hurt the pork export business, especially to key markets like Japan, which is a tremendous market for US chilled pork.

Ms Ruhland said the beef industry has been challenged by the decline in the cattle herd because the beef checkoff is assessed per head, not by pounds or value produced.

“But at the same time, the foreign marketing budget has increased,” she said.

“We realise in the beef industry that we have to operate in the global community in order to retain the sustainability, particularly the economic sustainability of US beef producers. The global community is becoming even more important to beef as we move forward and as we rebuild herd.”

When it comes to international marketing, it’s important for the beef industry not to put all its eggs in one basket, Ms Ruhland added.

“In the long term, we need to balance our portfolio internationally,” she said

“We must have a good mix of emerging markets, mature markets and a product mix that allows us to be balanced.”

Ms Ruhland said the beef industry has a strong belief in partnerships, whether with retailers, foodservice providers or others in the supply chain, but its most important partnership is with consumers – both domestically and globally.

“Consumers are where it all ends. They drive the purchasing, so we need to listen to their needs worldwide.”

The USMEF Board of Directors approved one new resolution at Friday’s business session, which related to trade with Cuba. While the resumption of diplomatic relations has raised expectations about expanded agricultural trade opportunities in Cuba, USDA programme funding and checkoff funding cannot be utilised for any market research or promotional activities. The USMEF resolution encourages member organisations that favour expanded trade with Cuba to advocate for a change in this policy.

“USMEF is not a lobbying organisation, but we are hopeful that agricultural associations that do have a strong lobbying presence will work in favour of this policy change,” Ms Saunders explained.

“This would help put USMEF in a better position to examine the Cuban market and assist companies interested in exporting beef, pork or lamb to Cuba.”

Highlighting Thursday’s agenda in San Antonio was a panel discussion on the role of branded products in the international markets. Branded beef and pork products are expected to make up a larger portion of the export business in coming years, as more and more consumers in international markets want information on where their food comes from and the story behind its production.

“In the Japanese market, it’s all about the story – where does our beef come from?” said Jay Theiler, executive director of marketing for Agri Beef, a diversified beef and pork company based in Boise, Idaho. “You have to have a story behind your product, and you have to take that story to your customers.”

Agri Beef exports to 26 countries under names such as Snake River Farms, St. Helens Beef, Double R Ranch and Rancho Elora. Mr Theiler said the company considers itself a “house of brands” rather than a “branded house.”

“We are really focused on segmenting the market for different opportunities,” he explained.

“We try to figure out how to be different and tell a story that sets us apart from our competition.”

Such an approach is important in a market like Japan, where a consumer can find roughly 400 brands of pork and more than 300 brands of beef, noted Takemichi Yamashoji, USMEF’s senior marketing director in Japan.

“Branded beef and branded pork are very important in Japan because of that competition,” Mr Yamashoji said. “Whatever is unique or special about your beef or pork needs to be highlighted.”

Andrew Brooks, vice president of marketing for Certified Hereford Beef, echoed these sentiments and shared an interesting story from when the company first became a member of USMEF.

“I remember that the email went out at 4:00 p.m. and by the next morning we had more than 50 emails from importers and companies from around the world, saying, ‘Welcome to USMEF, we want to get more information about your brand, we want to know more about your producers,’” Mr Brooks recalled.

“We got emails saying ‘I want to hear more about what you have that is unique and different.’ It really opened doors for us.”

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