U.S. pork exports may be on the rebound but sales slipped in January as pork plus pork variety meat shipments fell 8% in both volume and value vs. January 2009, according to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF).

Exports of muscle cuts fell only 4% in volume and 5% in value, while variety meat exports shrunk 18% in both categories.

January pork plus pork variety meat exports totaled 317.9 million pounds valued at just over $333 million. Exports comprised 22% of total pork/pork variety meat production. Export value per live hog slaughtered was $37.37, an increase of about $0.80 per head over a year ago.

Leading the decline were China and Russia. Exports remain closed to China due to the H1N1-related ban, and exports to Russia were heavily impacted by a lack of eligible U.S. plants. As of late last week, USMEF was reporting that Russia approved the resumption of imports from 11 U.S. pork plants after gaining assurance that U.S. meat would be free of an antibiotic that violated Russia’s food safety rules. Russia was the fifth-largest export market for U.S. pork in 2009.

The largest contributor to January’s export picture was the nearly one-third decline in exports to Japan, by far the largest value market for U.S. pork. Exports to Japan totaled 61.6 million pounds valued at $108 million. Those numbers are down 34% in volume and 27% in value from January 2009.

“The United States is still the market leader in Japan, and this market is still performing at a very high level,” says USMEF President and CEO Philip Seng. “But Japan had a noticeable increase in its domestic pork production in 2009, which created a backlog in its pork inventories and lowered domestic prices significantly. We are definitely feeling some impact from that, though we don’t expect that production trend to continue this year.

“U.S. pork is extremely well-positioned in Japan, with our chilled products gaining wide acceptance in both the retail and foodservice sectors,” he continues. “U.S. back ribs are also gaining traction in Japan, and our processed items and sausages are also performing very well. Despite taking a step back in January, our prospects remain bright in Japan.”

Mexico firmed its position as the largest volume market for U.S. pork, setting a new monthly record of 120.1 million pounds valued at $93.5 million. This was an increase of 12% in volume and 27% in value over January 2009 and surpassed the previous record in December 2009 by 5% in volume and 4% in value.

“The gains U.S. pork has achieved in Mexico are quite remarkable,” Seng says. “USMEF worked very hard to rebuild pork demand and consumer confidence during last year’s H1N1 crisis, and those efforts have really taken hold. Demand has not only recovered, but has actually risen to new heights.”

For more details on other U.S. pork export results in January, go to www.USMEF.org.