U.S. beef exports for 2012 totaled 2.45 billion pounds, 12 percent lower than a year earlier. The United States was still a net beef exporter in 2012, but by a narrower margin—only 235 million pounds, versus 728 million pounds in 2011. With strong global demand for U.S. beef, the tightening domestic beef supply and restrictive high prices were the primary causes for lower exports in 2012. However, the United States exported 9.5 percent of production, about 1 percent point lower than the production share exported in 2011. Excluding Hong Kong and Russia, to which U.S. exports were 24 and 5 percent higher, exports to all major beef trading partners were lower in 2012. U.S. exports to South Korea and Japan were down by 20 percent and 1 percent, year over year; to Vietnam and Taiwan by 6 and 46 percent; and to Canada and Mexico by 7 and 28 percent. Canada remained the top U.S. beef export market in 2012 at 467 million pounds, followed closely by Japan at 450 million pounds. Mexico, South Korea, and Hong Kong rounded out the top 5 spots at 352, 305, and 201 million pounds.

In terms of the U.S. export share to its major markets, Japan’s imports from the U.S. increased by over 9 percent compared with a year earlier, with Australia the main loser of market share to the United States. The United States lost market share in Canada, however, to Australia and Uruguay, while total imports by Mexico were lower from all major exporters to the country. Total imports by South Korea were also lower, but Australia’s share of the market increased by over 2 percentage points.

U.S. beef exports in 2013 are expected to be only fractionally lower than in 2012. Drought, slaughter cattle availability, and the extent to which U.S. producers rebuild their herds will have the greatest effects on 2013 export levels. The U.S. beef supply is perhaps the biggest constraining factor to growth in U.S. beef exports in the near term.