By TIM HEARDEN
When beef industry insiders rave about the value of "variety meats", they're not talking about sandwich slices.
They're discussing parts of the cow including hearts, livers, stomachs and intestines, which aren't typically consumed in the United States but are very popular in other regions of the world.
In fact, as total U.S. beef exports were setting a record at $5.51 billion last year, beef offal represented 12.5 percent of that total at $703.1 million in value, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
It also accounted for 28.4 percent of the total volume of beef exports at 708.4 million pounds, noted the organization that promotes U.S. meat sales overseas. In short, no part of a slaughtered animal goes to waste, as nearly 100 percent of the U.S. livestock herd is represented in variety meat exports, the USMEF reports.
"Variety meats have always been a very important part of the export mix because they command so much more of a significant price overseas than they do at home," USMEF spokesman Joe Schuele said. "One of the things that's helping on the beef side is more and more countries take product from cattle of all ages, so we are able to ship more variety meat from cattle over 30 months of age.
"The growth in the Middle East and Latin American markets has been very helpful," he said. "It's always been an important part of the export equation because you're not going to see a lot of demand for that product domestically."
While a beef dinner for Americans may be a juicy steak or a hamburger, chances are it's a serving of liver in Egypt, tongue in Japan, heart in Peru or intestine in Mexico or Southeast Asia, the USMEF explains in a news release.
Demand for both large and small intestines would be non-existent were it not for trade with countries like Mexico and South Korea, asserted Jerry Wiggs, export salesman for Greater Omaha Packing Co., Inc. The same is true for other variety meats; more than 90 percent of U.S.-produced beef tongues are exported, primarily to customers in northern Asia and Mexico, the USMEF reports.
More than nine out of every 10 U.S. beef livers, hearts and kidneys are sold to buyers in the Middle East South America and, when the market is open, Russia, the organization explains. More than 75 percent of U.S. beef stomachs are sent to Mexico and Southeast Asia.
In some cases, variety meats were the first point of entry for U.S. beef into developing markets where consumers want protein but can't always afford high-end cuts. The trend simply underscores the importance of maximizing market access, Schuele said.
"I think most consumers don't realize" the value of alternative meat cuts overseas, Schuele said. "They don't see a lot of those products in their own meat case so it's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation ... I think the one thing that surprises even producers is how a lot of these products are consumed as center-of-the-table meats overseas."
U.S. Meat Export Federation: https://www.usmef.org