Major Players

The US is a major player in the world beef market. Even with a reduced inventory of beef cows, the US is again expected to be the top producer of beef in the world in 2024, with production of just under 1.2 million metric tons of beef (Table 1). The US is also the top consumer of beef, consuming just over 1.2 million metric tons of beef each year.

On the trade front, the US is a top 5 importer and top 5 exporter of beef. Recently, the US had been the 3rd largest exporter of beef, but India recently passed the US to claim the 3rd spot. This made the US the world’s 4th largest exporter of beef. On the other hand, the US has firmly been the 2nd largest importer of beef in the world, behind only China.

graph of major players in the World Beef Market

Relative Value of US Beef Imports and Exports

The US typically imports and exports roughly the same amount of beef on a quantity basis. However, in Table 1 we can see that due to lower than usual domestic production, the US is expected to import notably more beef than it exports this year. While there are years when the US is a net importer on a quantity basis, the magnitude is typically not this large. If the US herd begins to expand again and domestic production increases, this gap is expected to decrease.

It still may seem strange than the US imports and exports so much beef. But not all beef is the same. For example, steak and ground beef provide different eating experiences and have very different costs and relative demand profiles.

To get a more detailed look at world beef trade the rest of the data in this article will be BACI data not USDA data, so the following tables will not be directly comparable to Table 1. BACI is an international trade dataset assembled by CEPII using the United Nation’s Comtrade data but corrects for inconsistencies. BACI data offers the benefit of reporting both volumes and values of trade goods in most, but not all cases.

Figure 1 shows US beef imports and exports in terms of value, quantity and average price. While not directly comparable to Table 1, the data tell the same story. Over multiple years, the US imports about the same amount of beef as it exports on a quantity basis. Notable exceptions are in the mid-2000’s and mid-2010’s when imports were noticeably higher than exports.

However, notice that on a value basis, exports are typically higher than imports. Furthermore, the average price of US beef exports has always been higher than the average price of US beef imports.

This implies that the US produces and exports more higher quality cuts than there is demand for domestically and imports lower quality cuts to fill the gaps in consumer demand. In other words, other countries are willing to pay for high quality US beef cuts, so some high-quality cuts are exported. Conversely, the US is a large consumer of ground beef and imports are brought in to help satisfy domestic demand for lower quality cuts of beef. This is also a reflection of the fact that the U.S. cattle herd is very productive and the ratio of high quality cuts produced per fed steer or heifer is greater than the output per cow in other countries.

Figure 1. US Beef Trade

three charts of US Beef Trade

Major Trade Partners for US Beef

Over the past 5 years, Japan and South Korea have been the top buyers of US beef. Together they make up almost half of the US exports. China and Mexico have also been large buyers of US beef. Recall US exports are typically higher value cuts.

Canada, Mexico, and Australia have been the largest suppliers of foreign beef to the US (Table 2). Recall these imports are typically lower value cuts than what the US is exporting. Much of this beef comes in the form of lean trimmings and beef suited for grinding.

Table 2. Major US Beef Trade Partners

graph of US beef trade partners

Markets of Other Major Importers and Exporter

As noted earlier the US is not the only major player in the beef market. While the US does some business with most other major players in the market, other major trade relationships in the market are also important to understand. The final part of this article outlines the trade relationships of the top four importers and exporters of beef in the world other than the US.

Table 3 outlines trade relationships of the top four largest exporters of beef other than the US. Only Australia is a top 5 supplier to the US.

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef. China and Hong Kong are major markets for Brazil accounting for over half of its beef exports. Like Brazil, Argentina sends most of its beef exports to China.

Australia is the world’s second largest exporter of beef. Over 75% of Australia’s exports are distributed across four major trade partners: Japan, China, United States, and South Korea. The remaining roughly 25% of Australia’s beef exports are spread across several other countries.

India surpassed the US in beef exports in 2023 to become the third largest exporter of beef in the world. It is expected to retain this rank in 2024 as well. A significant portion of India’s beef production and exports are derived from water buffalo , typically less marbled than beef from the English and European beef breeds common in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. None of India’s major beef trading partners are one of the top five largest beef importing countries. However, India exports to many Asian countries with its largest trading partner being Vietnam.

Table 3. Trade Partners of Other Major Importers (5 Year Average Imports)

graph of trade partners of other major exporters

Table 4 outlines the trade relationships of the four largest beef importers in the world other than the US. As a major beef exporter, the US appears as a top 5 supplier to 3 of these 4 countries with the exception being China.

China, specifically the People’s Republic of China, is the world’s largest importer of beef. Its primary suppliers are the South American countries of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay as well as the southwestern pacific countries of Australia and New Zealand. The US has been the 6th largest supplier of beef to China, but the drop off between New Zealand and the US is significant. The US only averages about 7% of total Chinese beef imports by value over the 5-year period.

While China is not a major market for US beef exports, Japan and South Korea are especially strong sources of US foreign beef demand. Both Japan and South Korea source most of their beef imports from the US and Australia. The US represents over 50% of South Korea’s beef imports and over 40% of Japan’s beef imports.

The European Union sources most of its beef from South America (Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay), the United Kingdom, and the US. Interestingly, the EU gets more total value of beef from Argentina but sources the largest quantity from the UK. This would imply that the UK is sending cow-beef and lower-valued trimmings to the EU whereas Argentina is sending more higher-valued products like steaks and ribs.

Table 4. Trade Partners of Other Major Exporters (5 Years Average Exports)

graph of trade partners of other major importers