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Exports to China, Japan bolster US pork industry

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[March 23, 2009]    NEW CARLISLE, Ohio (AP) -- Greg Kaffenbarger found himself increasingly and heavily dependent on sales to Japan, China and Mexico as he watched his annual herd of hogs grow to 6,500 over the years.

Like many U.S. hog farmers, Kaffenbarger has benefited from a steady increase of pork exports that's given new life to an industry that produces more pork than Americans can eat. Nearly a quarter of the pork produced in the U.S. goes abroad, up from only 3 percent in 1990. Last year, farmers shipped a record 2 million metric tons of pork valued at nearly $4.9 billion.

"If you take exports out, it's disastrous," Kaffenbarger said from the den of his farmhouse near New Carlisle in western Ohio. "We'd be out of business."

Other U.S. livestock producers are also enjoying recent export success. The export value of U.S. poultry, table eggs and processed egg products set a record last year, with a 25 percent improvement over 2007. And the volume of lamb and mutton muscle-cut exports was up 28 percent in 2008, also a record.

The sharp increase in pork exports in 2008 represents an anomaly, and numbers are expected to drop 14 percent this year because of the global economic downturn and an increase in pork production by China and other importing countries. However, exports are still expected to be significantly higher than in 2007.

Joe Schuele, spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, said the "off-the-charts" pork exports in 2008 were propelled by an unusually high demand from China -- the result, he said, of a cyclical decline in China's swine herd, disease issues that hurt pork production and a major Sichuan earthquake.

China's increased production isn't expected to hurt U.S. exports significantly. Last year, China accounted for $334 million of the $4.9 billion in U.S. exports. That compared to $1.54 billion from Japan.

As U.S. farmers have expanded into other countries, they have changed how they breed, feed, prepare and package hogs in an effort to keep a hold on the overseas market.

More than 20 percent of the pork now consumed in Japan is from the United States. The Japanese prefer leaner cuts for their processed pork and especially like pork loins and butts. For table cuts, they want high-quality pork that is deep red and firm, with more marbling.

Mexicans favor legs and picnic shoulders; the Chinese prefer variety meats.

Federation President Philip Seng said pork exported to Japan and China is often sliced into smaller pieces to make it easier to eat with chopsticks. Pork is also sold as deli meat in Japan because of the large number of convenience stores there.

Many countries pay a premium for parts of the hog that aren't in demand among American consumers.

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For example, blood sausage made out of liver, tongue and kidney is popular in Korea, as is barbecued stomach and cheek meat. The Taiwanese use the feet and tails in stews. And in Singapore, the large intestine is braised with Chinese spices and served with rice.

"We're exporting an item that is considered a delicacy in some countries and able to sell that as a premium instead of it going into some kind of processed product here in the United States," said John Hinners, the federation's assistant vice president of industry relations.

For example, variety meat -- which includes such parts as the tongue, kidney, heart and intestines -- sold for an average of $8.21 more per hog in international markets last year than what it would have sold for in the United States.

Foreign appetites have also changed the way many farmers breed and feed their hogs.

Kaffenbarger, 37, has reduced the size of his hogs through breeding, resulting in slightly smaller loins, chops, hams and other cuts when the animals go to market. He has also decreased the fat content of his hogs through breeding and by altering the mix of corn-and-soybean-meal feed.

"I need to produce what they want if I want to survive," he said.


On the Net:

U.S. Meat Export Federation:

[Associated Press; By JAMES HANNAH]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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