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 2023, with production of over 1.2 million metric tons of beef (Table 1). The US is also the top consumer of beef, consuming around 1.2 million metric tons of beef each year.

On the trade front, the US is a top 5 importer and exporter of beef. Over the past 5 years the US has been the 3rd largest exporter of beef in the world, though India is expected to jump the US in 2023, pushing the US down to the 4th largest beef exporter. Also, over the past 5 years the US has been the second largest importer of beef in the world, behind China and this is expected to continue in 2023.

Table 1. Major Players in the World Beef Market

Relative Value of US Beef Imports and Exports

Notice in Table 1 that the US imports and exports about the same amount of beef on a metric ton basis. This may seem strange at first glance as one may think the US could simply consume the beef it produces. But this train of thought ignores the fact that not all beef is the same. For example, steak and ground beef provide different eating experiences and have very different costs.

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

The top portion of Figure 1 shows US beef imports and exports in metric tons. While not directly comparable to Table 1, the data tell the same story. The US typically imports about the same amount of beef as it exports on a quantity basis. Notable exceptions are in the early 2000’s and mid 2010’s when imports were noticeably higher than exports.

The middle portion of Figure 1 show beef trade on a dollar or value basis. Notice, exports appear relatively higher compared to imports on a value basis than they did on a volume basis.

The bottom portion of Figure 1 confirms this observation as we can clearly see on a per unit basis, US beef exports are more valuable than beef imports. This implies the US typically exports higher quality cuts than it imports. With this understanding beef trade is much easier to understand. Other countries are willing to pay for high quality cuts of beef from the US, so some higher quality cuts are exported. On the other hand, 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.  

Figure 1. US Beef Trade

Major Trade Partners for US Beef

Over the past 5 years, Canada, Mexico, and Australia has 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.  

Japan, South Korea, and Mexico have been the top buyers of US beef in terms of both value and quantity. Japan and South Korea together make up almost half of all US beef exports. Recall these countries are typically buying higher quality cuts than the US is importing.

Table 2. Major US Beef Trade Partners Over Past Years

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 into 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. The following discussion references exports on a metric ton basis unless otherwise noted.

Table 3 outlines the trade relationships of the four largest beef importers in the world other than the US. As a major beef exporter, the US is a major trading partner with three of the other top beef importers, 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 3% of total Chinese beef imports 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 the majority 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.

Chile unsurprisingly sources most of its beef imports from other nearby South American countries. The US is Chile’s largest source of beef outside of South America.

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

Table 4 outlines trade relationships of the top four largest exporters of beef other than the US.  Three of these countries appear as suppliers in Table 3 with the exception being India. 

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef. China and Hong Kong are major markets for Brazil accounting for about half of its beef exports by volume. Like Brazil, Argentina sends the majority 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. Like the US, Japan and South Korea are major destinations for beef exports.  

India is expected to surpass the US in beef exports in 2023 to become the third largest exporter of beef in the world. A significant portion of India’s beef production and exports are derived from water buffalo[1], 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 4. Trade Partners of Other Major Exporters (5 Years Average Exports)

[1] Water buffalo are of the genus, Bubalus bubalis. Most U.S., Canadian, and European cattle are Bos taurus. A significant portion of Brazilian and African cattle are Bos Indicus.