There is a growing recognition that international beef trade will play an increasingly important role in the U.S. beef industry in the coming years.  Within the dynamics of global beef trade it is important to understand changes and trends in U.S. beef trade.  The quantity of U.S. beef imports and exports has varied considerably over time and so has the shares of trade among major countries that trade beef with the U.S.  Some of these changes are related to specific events, such as the occurrence of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in 2003, political changes or currency exchange rate impacts.  Some, however, are just evolution of markets over time due to changes in production and/or demand in the U.S. and other countries.  This article focuses on U.S. beef imports.

The latest monthly trade data shows that total beef imports in May were down 1.7 percent.  For the year to date, January-May, total beef imports are down 9.0 percent year over year.  This follows a 10.5 year over year decrease in U.S. beef imports in 2016.

Australia, historically the top source of U.S. beef imports, is currently the third largest source, down 24 percent in May and down 34 percent year over year for the year to date. Australia has accounted for about 29 percent of U.S. beef imports over the past decade but only represents about 21 percent so far this year.  Australia will likely rebuild some market share in the coming years with herd rebuilding following the drought forced herd liquidation in 2014 and 2015.  Imports of beef from New Zealand were down 14.5 percent year over year in May and are down 19.6 percent so far in 2017.  New Zealand beef represents about 22 percent of beef imports so far in 2017.  New Zealand has consistently averaged about 20 percent of U.S. beef imports over the past decade. 

With the year over year decline in imports from Australia and New Zealand, Canada is currently the largest source of U.S. beef imports.  May beef imports from Canada were up 3.4 percent year over year but year to date imports from Canada are down 3.6 percent from last year.  Canada accounts for about 23 percent of beef imports in 2017.  Canada has varied as the number one, two or three source of U.S. beef imports in the last ten years.  However, Canada’s share of U.S. beef imports appears to have trended down some over time with the current share considerably lower than the 27 percent average over the past decade.  

The clearest and most pronounced trend in U.S. beef imports in the growing role of Mexico as a source of beef imports.  In May, beef imports from Mexico were up 27.4 percent year over year and are up 29.7 percent for the year to date.  Mexico, which accounted for less than 2 percent of beef imports a decade ago, increased to account for over 16 percent of U.S. beef imports in 2016 and represents 20 percent of beef imports so far in 2017. 

Imports of beef from Brazil in May were up 50.3 percent year over year and are up 34.2 percent for the year to date.  However, the reinstated ban on fresh beef from Brazil in June may slow imports once again, at least temporarily.  Brazil has been a distant fifth place source of U.S. beef imports over the past decade, averaging about five percent of the U.S beef import total.  Brazil accounted for 5.1 percent of beef imports in 2016 and 5.3 percent so far in 2017.