Lingering effects of the H1N1 influenza virus continue to produce sales of U.S. pork and beef products that lag behind last year’s pace for the first six months of the year, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF).

Agriculture Department statistics show pork exports of 2.38 billion pounds valued at $2.53 billion, 10% and 9% respectively below last year’s record pace, but still 53% higher in volume and 48% higher in value than in January-July 2007.

Japan remains the leader for U.S. pork exports in terms of value in 2009, reaching 572 million pounds worth $944.1 million through July. Volume only slightly exceeds figures for 2008, but value exceeds last year’s total by 11%.

The H1N1 influenza outbreak particularly dampened pork exports to Mexico in 2009. Through April, pork exports to Mexico were running 71% above 2008 in volume and 62% higher in value. But figures for May-July have been roughly even with 2008, leaving Mexico with totals of 634.2 million pounds valued at $426.5 million, 4% higher in volume and 23% higher in value compared to 2008.

“Pork exports to Mexico are still having a terrific year,” says USMEF Chairman Jon Caspers, a pork producer from Swaledale, IA. “But there’s no question that H1N1 caused a lot of economic disruption in Mexico and created a backlog in pork inventories. Hopefully, we’re past the worst of that situation, and can move back toward the level of activity we saw earlier this year.”

Other markets showing significant improvements for January-July include Australia (up 22% in volume and 21% in value) and the Caribbean (up 42% in volume and 35% in value).

Pork exports had already slowed significantly to China prior to the market closing in early May due to the H1N1 flu break. Caspers says, however, that having this market closed to U.S. pork is a major stumbling block that the pork industry can’t afford.

“Our expectations for China were modest for this year, because we knew they would have much higher domestic production,” he says. “But being shut off completely from the world’s largest pork-consuming market is a very serious blow for the industry.”

Consumer attitudes appear to have recovered quickly from any link between pork consumption and the H1N1 influenza, despite the media’s persistent mislabeling of H1N1 as swine flu. But Caspers, who was in China recently for the World Pork Conference, says market research in China reveals that more consumer education is needed on this issue.

“Across the entire globe, the pork industry cannot afford to have China’s consumers turning away from our product,” he says. “Whether you are a pork producer in Iowa, Indiana, China or Chile, this is a very serious problem. Hopefully, we can all work together to provide better information to China’s consumers and turn this situation around.”

The H1N1 flu break and U.S. pork plant delistings have combined to lower U.S. pork exports to Russia by about 30% compared to last year. For July, however, pork exports to Russia reached 43.3 million pounds, valued at $43.1 million, nearly double in volume and more than double in value over June totals.

U.S. pork exports are also holding their own in terms of percentage of total production. Pork and pork variety meats accounted for 22.8% of January-July production, vs. 24.7% during the same period a year ago. Muscle cut exports comprised 18.3% of production, compared to 21.5% in January-July 2008.

For more export data, go to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.