I attended my first World Pork Expo in Des Moines this week. And as you might expect, there was plenty of pork to go around — jerked, roasted, grilled, you name it.
But this was truly a global experience for the thousands of attendees, who came from more than 30 countries. The crowd was full of reps from swine genetics companies, Pzifer and other antibiotics suppliers, industrial ventilation companies… and pork producers, of course.
And trade — or rather, free trade — was a prominent talking point.
Korean Ambassador Han Duk-Soo, the keynote speaker, honed in on that interest.
"Talking to pork producers about free trade is like talking to your wife about a trip to Mall of America,” Han said. “You don't have to spend a lot of time convincing her that it's in her interests."
Jokes aside, pork producers are really gunning for the free trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea to pass. They got a taste of what sales would like if Korea dropped taxes on U.S. meat imports earlier this year, when the country did just that because foot and mouth disease that wiped out much of their pork supply. During those months, the U.S. moved from being Korea's sixth-largest pork supplier up to its third.
But the formal agreement reached between the two countries in June 2007 has yet to be approved by Congress, largely because of worries that it would hurt U.S. industrial production.
Han said the agreement will give U.S. producers better access to South Korea’s trillion-dollar economy, and he stressed its importance for the U.S. to remain competitive on the Korean market. South Korea's free trade agreement with the European Union goes into effect in July, and the country is negotiating agreements with Canada and Australia.
Nick Giordano, of the National Pork Producers Council, told me that pork producers have been and continue to be supportive of international trade.
“In fact a lot people in Washington look at us as the poster child for expanded trade, and the numbers show it — every time there's a new trade agreement, our exports go up incredibly. It's like clockwork," Giordano said.
He said the international market is a significant part of the pork industry, largely because pork producers can sell different cuts of meat abroad. For example: fresh leg of hog to Mexico, trimmings to Russia for sausage, and shoulder meat for Korean barbeque. And with Asia's middle class growing, pork producers are anticipating an even greater market for their meat.
"In China, which is the biggest pork consuming nation in the world and whose costs are over two times as high – they like internal organs," said Giordano. "So products most Americas won't consume are a fundamental part of Chinese diet."
As for the South Korean agreement, Giordano said the council is confident Congress will ratify it.
U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, who also was at the expo, said much of agreement’s language has been rewritten: "At this point there's no reason (the agreement) shouldn't be moved, and moved very, very quickly; it's so important for Iowa.”