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2023 broke pork export records and was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal market.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

March 26, 2024

6 Min Read
pigs in a pen
HOPE FOR SWINE: Last year was a bad year for producers raising pigs. But booming exports could help fuel a recovery. Matt Carr/Getty Images

Not many pork producers will say they are hog wild about growing pigs right now.

2023 was a struggle. A February article by the Des Moines Register showed Iowa producers, with more than 23 million head of pigs, experienced their worst losses in more than 20 years, driven largely by higher feed costs and lower market prices for pigs.

“From an annual standpoint, this would go down as the worst year for pork producers ever,” said Lee Schulz, an Iowa State University economist, in a February report by television station WQAD.

But there is some hope for the hog market: Exports are booming.

“I’m old enough to remember some of the previous rough times: the 1980s, the 1990s, when hogs would not even bring enough to pay for the fuel to take them to market,” said Joe Schuele, vice president of communications with the U.S. Meat Export Federation. “We are hopeful that international demand is one of the factors that will get the industry back on the road to recovery more quickly, because international demand for U.S. pork is certainly moving.”

Speaking at the Keystone Pork Expo in Lebanon, Pa., Schuele said U.S. pork producers are in a great spot to feed people around the world hungry for pork. Last year broke export records. Here’s some statistics he presented:

  • U.S. pork export value was a record $8.16 billion in 2023, up 6%.

  • Exports accounted for record share of U.S. total production, just under 30%.

  • Pork export value was $64 a head, up 4% and an annual record. More than $11 a head attributed to pork variety meat was also a record.

  • Exports to Mexico hit a record at $2.25 billion.

Why Mexico? Unlike past years when the Mexican peso weakened in the face of a strong U.S. dollar, Schuele said the peso has stayed relatively strong and has helped grow demand there.

“It makes our price, especially some of the higher-end cuts, much more price-competitive in that market,” he said.

Mexico has always been a major destination for hams and other cuts, but pork has also become a preferred center-of-the-plate item, Schuele said. For example, pork loins have grown in value the past few years.

And parts of the animal that normally will not sell domestically are selling well south of the border. For example, pork jowls — cuts from the cheek — are being used to make chicharrons and other snacks, he said, helping offset cuts in exports to China and Southeast Asia.

Since 2010, per-capita pork consumption in Mexico has grown 40% and by more than 10% in the 2020s.

“If you’re wondering what has made Mexico such a spectacular market, we’re not just displacing the Mexican product. We are really growing consumption, so that every supplier of pork to Mexico — domestic suppliers and our foreign competitors — are seeing a rise in consumption,” he said.

Value in other cuts

Exports of pork variety meats — snouts, organs and other cuts of a pig that normally don’t sell well domestically — are growing and setting records, according to Schuele. More than $11 of the $64-a-head pork export value in 2023 was attributed to pork variety meats.

“That $11 a head is very meaningful because I can remember when China was buying a lot of pork, when they were recovering from African swine fever, when that dollar figure got to $9 a head. We were pretty pleased with that. Now we’re at $11 a head. And China, while it is still the largest market for pork variety meat, really didn’t drive that growth last year,” he said.

Rising pork variety meat exports also show that processors are capturing more cuts for consumption. This had decreased during the pandemic, largely due to labor shortages at plants. However, data show that has likely recovered.

Other export hot spots

Free-trade agreements with Central American countries have provided tariff relief and helped grow pork exports to countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras.

Schuele said the pork export market to Central America was $400 million last year. “I can remember … 15 years ago, we weren’t even shipping that much red meat, beef and pork combined, to all of Latin America,” he said.

Schuele gave a rundown of export hot spots in other countries:

Panama. The country is under a separate trade agreement with the U.S., as it was not part of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement signed in 2006. Panama’s trade agreement more or less mirrors CAFTA, with duty-free access to the country’s markets, but there are quotas on imports.

Schuele said it will be seen if the U.S. will allow Panama to back off on pork imports or force it to honor the terms of the free-trade agreement.

Dominican Republic. Exports to the Dominican Republic were valued at about $275 million last year. The country has been battling an outbreak of African swine fever and has been dependent on exports to feed its growing appetite for pork in supermarkets and restaurants.

South Korea. “The Korean market is very much convenience-driven,” Schuele said, with “a huge market for whole-meal replacement and restaurant meal replacement items. Their food service industry, in terms of traditional restaurant traffic, has not really bounced back from COVID the way we hoped that it would. But Koreans are still looking for ways to enjoy restaurant-quality meals.”

Japan. The country offers U.S. pork a greater than $1 billion market. However, Schuele said inflation and its weak yen have hurt consumers’ purchasing power.

China. The country is protecting its domestic pork supply, so exports there have largely flattened out.

South Africa. South Africa is the largest red meat market for the U.S. but has restrictions on exports.  

Nigeria. The most populated country in Africa has been notorious for banning imports of red meat, but Schuele said Nigeria has opened up to imports of U.S. sausage, giving the industry a foot in the door.

Exporters outside U.S.

Schuele said other countries are struggling to export pork product, which helps U.S. producers. Europe overall has been hurt by widespread farmer protests over regulations and high costs of production. EU pork production has dropped 15% since the 2021 peak, and exports fell 20% due to regulations, rising input costs, the war in Ukraine and overreliance on China for exports.

Germany, once a pork export powerhouse, has seen production drop 25% in the past nine years after its pork production peaked in 2015.

Similar issues are affecting Canadian pork producers, particularly in Quebec, where plant closures and production cutbacks have occurred.

Brazil, another pork export powerhouse, has also seen rising pork exports, but those to Mexico are currently suspended over disagreements between those two governments.

All this leads Schuele to believe that 2024 will be another banner year for U.S. pork exports, with somewhat of a slowdown.

“I feel like we are really well-positioned for continued growth in 2024. We don’t anticipate that we’ll have as rapid growth in pork exports. We were up about 8% in 2023,” he said. Exports “might slow a little bit, but we’re confident that we’ll still achieve significant growth in 2024.”

“We export about 30% of our total pork production, about 15% of our total beef production, and that is reflective of the fact that we have a very large and robust domestic market. And we like to think that international demand really complements that domestic demand.”

Regional head count

The 2022 Census of Agriculture gave these regional hog numbers:

  • Ohio — 2.7 million head

  • Pennsylvania — 1.34 million head

  • Michigan — 1.26 million head

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About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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