As COVID-19 continues to shift the landscape for U.S. pork domestically, one sector that has been largely unaffected thus far has been U.S. pork export markets.
"With January export data being the most current that we have, we were at almost 516 million pounds, which was the second highest month on record for U.S. pork exports, and largely that was driven by the huge increase to the Chinese market, but we continue to see that the product is moving," says Clay Eastwood, director of international marketing for the National Pork Board.
While impact from COVID-19 may be more evident in the February and March data that will come out in the next few months, Eastwood says so far supply and demand fundamentals and market access improvements are expected to support strong U.S. pork export growth throughout the year.
"Pork production was 5% higher in 2019 than it was in 2018 and forecasts show that production will continue to grow in 2020, so we continue to know that exports are critical to providing that significant value back to producers," Eastwood says. "There's a lot of opportunity in Asia, whether it be trying to help fill the demand and the need of the protein gap in China, but also focusing on markets like Japan, Mexico, places where we have had trade headwinds in the last couple of years."
For example, she points to Japan, the No. 1 value market for U.S. pork and a market NPB and the U.S. Meat Export Federation have been heavily focused on recapturing market share. Eastwood says the January data confirm those efforts have been paying off, as the United States was able to regain market share from competitor Canada.
Another market focus has been Mexico, where U.S. pork faced retaliatory duties for several months. "We're focused on not only recapturing some of the market share that we would have lost there, but also diversifying," Eastwood says. "We send a lot of hams to Mexico and so if we can diversify that product mix and provide some different opportunities and different products for those consumers, that's a really great opportunity for U.S. pork as well."
Outside of those major markets, the Pork Checkoff has been examining further business opportunities in places such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Eastwood points to the China market assessment study the Pork Checkoff completed last year as to the detailed information they hope to report back on from those countries.
"We hope to provide some of those similar insights that we can then turn into action for our packer export community, in places like Vietnam and the Philippines, where you've got emerging types of economy and as the consumers have more disposable income, that really one of the first places they want to spend money on is protein," Eastwood says. "We want to kind of see how within those markets, what are the things that we can do to position U.S. pork for long-term success."
In the short term with global COVID-19 quarantines and restrictions in place, NPB and USMEF have had to revise their marketing efforts abroad but are still making headwinds. For example, USMEF implemented a promotion for chilled U.S. pork at 105 Park N' Shop outlets in Hong Kong on March 21. Driven by newspaper ads and in-store point-of-sale materials, merchandisers will rotate through eight stores every weekend through April. USMEF's strategy is to position chilled, vacuum-packed U.S. pork with consumers as an alternative to frozen pork and Hong Kong's fresh pork supply, which has been crippled by African swine fever.
In Japan, McDonald's is now marketing U.S. pork in its Tonkatsu sandwich. A breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet, Tonkatsu is a staple item in the Japanese market so the promotion puts a unique spin on the product with U.S. pork in the food service sector.
"What we've seen, especially in those markets like China and Japan and those Asian markets is that, retail meat sales remain strong and retailers and restaurants, much like here are utilizing either the e-commerce route or delivery services to make sure that product is still moving," Eastwood says. "We know that because of a lot of the impact of people having to stay home in these Asian markets, that they have adjusted some of their marketing programs and are figuring out how they can explore new promotional opportunities, including some direct delivery to consumers."