President Donald Trump’s statement to the Washington Post last week that the U.S. might terminate its free trade agreement with South Korea is cause for concern in the U.S. meat industry, which shipped $1.42 billion in beef and pork to the Asian country in 2016.
The beef industry is concerned by any mention of a move by the administration that would challenge U.S. access to South Korea’s beef market, said Kent Bacus, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association director of international markets.
The U.S. beef industry last year shipped just over $1 billion in beef to South Korea, surpassing Australia to become the country’s largest supplier, he said.
“We can’t afford to jeopardize a $1 billion export market,” he said.
The agreement with South Korea has been one of the best ever for U.S. beef. In a few years, it will phase out the country’s tariffs on U.S. beef from 40 percent to zero, he said.
Trump’s statement is “very dangerous,” and U.S. beef can’t afford to jeopardize that access, become less competitive and lose market share to other suppliers, he said.
Before the agreement, South Korea had one of the highest tariffs on U.S. beef. And because of the agreement, the U.S. now has an 8 percent tariff advantage over Australia.
“It’s an amazing agreement; it’s been very beneficial for us,” he said.
South Koreans eat a lot of beef, import a lot of cuts from the U.S. that Americans find less desirable and pay a premium for those products — and there’s tremendous growth in Asian markets, he said.
“We need to be very careful with what we say to our trade partners. The last thing we need to see is that 40 percent tariff reinstated on our beef,” he said.
Bacus said he can understand Trump trying to score political points with the anti-trade supporters who elected him, but to say the South Korea trade agreement is all bad is “a bad statement to make,” he said.
“We can’t afford to jeopardize that access,” he said.
U.S. beef exports have grown from $518 million in 2010 before the agreement to $1.06 billion in 2016.
NCBA was also concerned by Trump’s statement about possibly withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada and is glad he backed away from it, he said.
U.S. beef can’t afford to walk away from all the gains it’s made on foreign access with no alternatives in a volatile climate, he said.
The trade agreement with South Korea has also benefited the U.S. pork industry.
“That agreement works really well for us; we sell a lot of pork to South Korea,” said Dave Warner, National Pork Producers Council director of communications.
He said he doesn’t know which U.S. sectors are having issues with the agreement but it’s up for a review, and NPPC’s recommendation would be to redo the parts that aren’t working.
“On the pork side, we’re good and we want to make sure we’re able to send even more. It’s an important market for us, and we want to see that it’s maintained,” he said.
Last year, U.S. pork exports to South Korea were at $365 million, up from $190 million in 2010 before the agreement was completed.