U.S. beef and veal exports in 2020 were down 2.3 percent compared to 2019. In comparison, U.S. beef imports were up 9.3 percent. The result—the U.S. had a trade deficit in beef where imports outpaced exports. In raw numbers, the U.S. imported 3.34 billion pounds and exported 2.96 billion pounds.

The beef processing slowdown caused by COVID-19 impacted beef trade. Monthly U.S. exports in April and May were down significantly due to lack of supply while imports were up presumably to partially offset the processing slowdown. However, a surge in exports in November and December, aided by a decline in the value of the dollar, against competitors’ currencies, helped exports finish the year strong. Derrell Peel, extension livestock marketing specialist at Oklahoma State University, says last year’s exports were the third largest on record.

Figure 1 plots U.S. trade in beef and veal since 2000. The volume of annual beef imports is shown by the blue line and exports by the red line. U.S. exports are typically high-value, muscle cuts. Imports tend to be trimmings intended for processing into ground beef. Beef imports hit a high of 3.7 billion pounds in 2004 and a low at roughly 2.0 billion pounds in 2011. Imports have been stable at around 3.0 billion pounds since 2016. U.S. beef exports have grown steadily since 2004 from 460 million pounds to a high of 3.2 billion pounds in 2018. Exports exceeded 3.0 billion pounds for the first time in 2018 and have been near or at that level the past two years.

Figure 1. U.S. Imports/Exports of Beef, 2000-2019

US Imports Exports of Beef 2000 2019

Source: NEFB, USDA Economic Research Service

Top purchasers of U.S. beef last year (Figure 2) were Japan, 829 million pounds (+3.7 percent), South Korea, 670 million pounds (-2.1 percent), and Mexico, 320 million pounds (-24.7 percent). Purchases by China and Hong Kong equaled 339 million pounds collectively, up 28 percent. Purchases made by China alone were up 271 percent—the USDA reports beef shipments to China between July and December were record breaking. In total, the U.S. supplied 1.3 percent of China’s beef imports last year. Canada, Australia, Mexico, and New Zealand were the largest sellers of beef and veal into the U.S. (Figure 3).

The USDA is projecting beef exports will increase 6 percent in 2021. If realized, exports could near record levels. The growth is expected in part to continued strong demand and the strengthening of the Australian dollar against the U.S. dollar. This helps the U.S. be competitive into Asian markets. Thus far in 2021, export sales to Mexico, China, and South Korea appear to be running ahead of last year. Exports to Japan, though, are largely flat. U.S. beef imports are projected to be off 10 percent, primarily due to tighter supplies in exporting countries.

Figure 2. Top U.S Beef Export Destinations, 2020

Top US Beef Export Destinations 2020

Source: NEFB, based on USDA ERS data

Figure 3. Top Beef Importers to the U.S.

Top Beef Importers to US

Source: NEFB, based on USDA ERS data