While Japan is recognized as the highest value market for U.S. pork and Mexico continues to be the largest volume market, there is no denying the growing importance of South Korea as a destination for our pork exports. 

As the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary in South Korea on Dec. 1, a look back at exports to this key market shows the progress the U.S. industry has realized over two decades. 

Through the first nine months of 2011, the United States captured more than one-third of the imported pork market in Korea in terms of volume and value – more than double that of nearest competitor, Canada. The U.S. share amounted to 153,330 metric tons (338 million pounds) valued at $395.1 million. 

The recently passed U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (still pending approval in Korea) is expected to further expand U.S. exports by removing duties on pork – ranging from 22% to 25% on most products – by 2016. 

A devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Korea, which wiped out about one-third of the country's hog herd, changed the landscape of the pork industry. While this situation, along with rampant food inflation in Korea, provided an opportunity for all pork-exporting nations, the United States has been able to capitalize on the situation, growing market share from 27.6% in 2010, according to the Global Trade Atlas. 

Looking back just a few years, the United States' importance to Korea as a source of pork was not nearly so significant. In 2000, the U.S. exported 11 million kilograms (24.4 million pounds) of pork valued at $16.5 million, accounting for a 7.6% market share by volume and 6.4% by value. Denmark held the No. 1 spot with more than a 25% share, while a number of nations – from Canada and France to the Netherlands and Hungary – outsold the United States in the Korean market. 

"That changed in the middle of this decade when U.S. investment in pork marketing in Korea increased significantly," explains Philip Seng, USMEF president and CEO. 

Between fiscal years 2004 and 2006, industry investment on U.S. pork exports to Korea through USMEF more than doubled. The investment came from a from a variety of sources, including the Pork Checkoff, Soybean Checkoff, USDA Market Access Program and third-party contributions arranged by USMEF staff with in-country business partners. Over roughly that same time span, U.S. pork exports to Korea grew 274% in volume and 339% in value. The U.S. leapt over Denmark, Canada, Chile, and others to assume the top spot among pork exporters to Korea. 

"The industry's commitment to Korea is measurable, and the results reflect that," Seng says. "Korea is a high-value market and we are exploring many opportunities there to increase the visibility and footprint of U.S. pork at retail, in foodservice, and in the processing sector. That effort will continue to grow once the Korean government approves the FTA and the benefits of that agreement take effect." 

Currently, South Korea ranks as the No. 4 market for U.S. pork exports in volume and No. 5 in value, but it ranks only behind China among the fastest-growing markets. Exports to Korea have jumped 139% in volume and 189% in value when compared to last year. 

Korea has been one of the targets of a focused effort to raise visibility of and appreciation for the U.S. pork butt. USMEF worked with Korean gourmet magazine Cook and this summer to profile five high-end restaurants that agreed to create special menu entrees featuring U.S. pork butt. This program is unique in Korea because pork is not typically considered of high enough quality to feature on gourmet menus. The promotion has resulted in 60% of the restaurants keeping pork butt on their menus full-time, helping give both the cut and U.S. pork a desirable placement. 

"Since pork butt is one of top two or three cuts we export in terms of volume, this type of program is invaluable," Seng explains. "As we raise the consumer's perception of the quality of the pork butt – well-deserved for its flavor and tenderness – we will see the value of the product, and returns to producers, continue to rise." 

Jim Herlihy 
Vice President of Communications 
U.S. Meat Export Federation 
jherlihy@usmef.org 
www.usmef.org