A growing economy and increased interest in the foodservice sector are two of the biggest strengths that pork has at the moment, according to the experts assembled by the National Pork Board as part of a “state of the industry” teleconference. Even the presumed death of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal isn’t enough to dim the outlook.

“Trade agreements have been very beneficial to the pork industry. We could look at the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and that’s allowed us to expand our market share very well in the Korean market,” said Brett Stuart of Global AgriTrends.

Stuart said that the TPP would create better access for U.S. pork into the lucrative Japan market, as well as the other TPP nations like Viet Nam. Even without the agreement, he argued that the pork industry wouldn’t suffer in Japan, largely due to the fact that the U.S. can provide chilled pork, which countries in the European Union aren’t able to do.

“Moving forward, we’re going to continue to ship a lot of pork to Japan, and it’s going to be a key profit driver for the U.S. industry,” Stuart said.

When it comes to domestic demand, several factors are working in pork’s favor. From an economic standpoint, a strong economy and an increase in the corn supply has created an ideal market for meat production. Len Steiner of the Steiner Consulting Group said that meat production in 2014 — two years after the corn price spike — stood at 90.9 billion pounds. Production in 2016 was expected to top the 100 billion pound mark.

“In 2016, US pork production will set an all-time record with 24.96 billion pounds, with more pork expected in 2017. We’re currently estimating that at 25.6 billion pounds,” he added.

Along with a favorable economic climate, consumers are drawn to pork for its versatility, flavor and value, explained Patrick Fleming, NPB’s Director, Market Intelligence and Innovation. Ham has been growing in popularity, particularly in the holiday season. It is traditionally the most popular protein at Christmas and is also picking up sales for the Thanksgiving dinner. Fleming pointed out that new ham products are helping to meet demand.

“We’ve seen an expansion in the different sizes of ham. Whether you’re having four people over for a Tuesday night dinner, or whether you’re having 21 people over for a holiday meal, there is the right size ham to meet all of those needs. Also, there are always new flavors of ham. This year, to keep up with consumer taste and preferences, salted caramel is one of the new flavors that came out,” he said.

Bacon continues to generate excitement among consumers, and it has been joined by pulled pork. Formerly a staple of barbecue restaurants only, pulled pork has gone mainstream.

“Pulled pork has expanded beyond the barbecue segment, consistently growing on menus over the past several years – a 16% increase since 2012,” Fleming said, citing Datassential information. “With operators incorporating pulled pork into sandwiches, noodle bowls and protein toppings for pizza, fries, baked potatoes and nachos, we’ve seen pulled pork really become that secondary topping, like bacon.”

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