January pork exports defied analysts’ predictions of a downturn, and provided a bright spot amidst sluggish consumer spending affecting key global markets, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF).

Pork muscle cut exports declined 4% in volume in January to 247.8 million lb., compared to January 2008, but increased by 2% in value to $295.8 million.

However, pork variety meat sales overseas surged by 46% in volume to 97.5 million lb. and by 44% in value to $64.4 million.

These advances produced total pork plus pork variety meat exports of 345.3 million lb. valued at $360.2 million – an increase of 6% in volume and 8% in value over January 2008.

USMEF President and CEO Philip Seng says the January pork sales results were also impressive given the unprecedented growth of pork exports in 2008.

“We all know that 2008 – especially the first half of the year – was an exceptional accomplishment for pork exports,” he suggests. “While 2008 was an all-time high for both volume and value of U.S. pork exports, circumstances have changed dramatically in some key markets and matching those results will be a significant challenge,” he observes.

One key market that has remained atop U.S. pork export sales is Japan, which in January imported 93.2 million lb., worth $147.3 million. This represented an increase of 28% in volume and 39% in value over January 2008. Mexico was the volume leader for pork exports in January at 107.4 million lb., but valued much lower at $73.9 million.

A decline in demand for U.S. pork was expected in China, Russia and some other key markets, Seng says.

Pork exports to Hong Kong increased, but shipments to the China/Hong Kong region dipped significantly in January, off 75%, as China rebuilds its swine herd and focuses on increasing domestic pork supplies.

Pork exports to Russia took a similar dive, heightened by a slumping currency and contracting economy that dragged down demand. Market access is also limited by the delisting of a major number of U.S. pork plants for export to Russia.

“So stepping up USMEF’s marketing efforts for U.S. pork in other regions of the world has been very important, and it is clearly paying dividends.”

One step has been to refocus efforts on market niches that offer faster payback, compared to some long-range educational programs.

That approach has succeeded in several emerging markets. Exports to the ASEAN (southeast Asia) countries in January increased by 82% in volume to 9.95 million lb. and 78% in value to more than $8 million. Pork exports to Australia climbed by 65% in volume (10 million lb.) and 80% in value to more than $11 million.

Strong performance in the Dominican Republic and Haiti fueled the increase of pork exports to the Caribbean region by 79% in volume (7 million lb.) and 78% in value to $6.3 million.

Click here for the full report on January pork exports.