An overflow crowd of Central and South American red meat buyers converged on Antigua, Guatemala, this week for a chance to learn more about U.S. pork, and make direct connections with U.S. exporters at the U.S. Meat Export Federation’s (USMEF) Third Annual Latin American Product Showcase.

The event attracted 36 U.S. exporters, up from 28 last year in Colombia and 18 in the inaugural showcase two years ago in Panama.  The number of buyers was up as well – 77 in Guatemala (more would have attended if space had allowed) vs. 50 in Colombia.

The growing popularity of the product showcase series is a testament to the importance of bringing buyers and sellers together.  Many of the attendees noted that the event has become a part of their annual planning. Requests are already being received to reserve space at the 2014 show.

The Central/South America region is a logical candidate to host these events.  The U.S. pork industry is making strong inroads to the region, and an important component of that is providing the education needed to give buyers confidence in the quality, safety and value of U.S. pork.

To illustrate the outlook for the region, overall U.S. pork exports are down 9% in volume and 8% in value through the first five months of this year, but exports to Central/South America through May are up 31% in volume and 28% in value vs. 2012.

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For some U.S. exporters, this region represents an undiscovered opportunity.   This year’s showcase drew a number of first-time exporters, such as Indiana Packers Corp.  They came away with the same positive impression as a three-time showcase participant from Dallas.

“This event provides a jump start to the selling process,” the Dallas exporter explained.  “For a trading company like mine to go and call on the number of customers that USMEF brings to this conference would cost at least 10 times what we’re spending to attend.  And this conference draws the decision-makers.”

While the showcase attracted a wide range of exporters, from multi-national corporations to individuals, the immediate impact is most evident for the smaller companies.

One exporter confided that prior to the Panama showcase in 2011, he ran a one-person operation.  The Panama program sparked a 70% growth in his business, and he added two employees.  The Colombia event spurred an additional 35% growth and the addition of one more staffer.  And while the growth rate slows as the size of his business expands, he’s anticipating another 25% growth from the Guatemalan showcase.

The showcases also have been opening eyes among buyers in the region.  One of the first-time participants was PriceSmart, a warehouse-type retailer that operates 31 outlets in 13 countries in the region.  Based on their response and eager participation, sales to this well-regarded retailer should begin flowing in the coming weeks.

PriceSmart is a case in point of what participating exporters termed “high-quality buyers…decision-makers who are ready to make purchasing decisions.”  Attracting buyers of that nature has helped make the showcase series a popular attraction.

Being a true red meat showcase, the Guatemala event attracted broad support that made it possible, with sponsorships coming from the Pork Checkoff, the Beef Checkoff, the Illinois Soybean Association, the Nebraska Beef Council and the USDA Market Access Program (MAP).

Providing the technical background for the buyers was Dale Woerner, Colorado State University assistant professor at the Center for Meat Safety and Quality, who conducted a cutting demonstration and took questions from participants.

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