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An Offal Lot of Exports: The Trade in Variety Meats

“They can’t seriously expect us to swallow that tripe!”

While not typically known for expanding the horizons of viewers, The Simpsons probably gave many American millennials their first taste of edible offal. In one episode of its seventh season, Lisa – already wrestling with the challenges of being a vegetarian – watches in horror as her entire class dives into a heaping plate of tripe “courtesy of the Meat Council.”

If you are not familiar with “offal” or “tripe,” chances are you are not alone. American consumers tend to prefer meat products that are made from muscle tissue and fat, like steak and hamburgers from cattle, or pork chops and bacon from hogs. Edible offal products, which are made from an animal’s intestines, internal organs, and other parts, rarely end up on American plates. Does that mean it simply goes to waste?

Thanks in large part to international trade, the answer is no. Culinary traditions in countries around the world call for the use offal in a wide variety of dishes (see The Offal-Eater’s Handbook: Where to Eat Organs All Over the World
by Robert Sietsema). In many places, certain offal products are even considered a delicacy. By looking beyond America’s borders, meat processors have been able to uncover lucrative markets and reach new consumers hungry for American food products.

Consider the case of Mexico, a country that consistently ranks as one of the leading importers of U.S. offal products, also known as “variety meats”. One of the most popular products is tripe, an offal made from a cow’s stomach. The whole idea may give Lisa from The Simpsons some consternation, but Mexican consumers have few qualms about eating tripe in tacos or a traditional soup called menudo. Last year, U.S. exporters sent a whopping 38,000 metric tons of tripe to Mexico – worth a handsome sum of $85 million.

An Offal Lot of Exports

Across the Pacific, consumers in Asia also display a healthy appetite for U.S. variety meats. Various beef and pork offal are shipped to China and Hong Kong, where items like pig feet are used in local dishes. Retaliatory tariffs levied during the ongoing trade dispute have dampened demand in China somewhat, but the U.S. still sold $131 million worth of beef and pork variety meat into China in 2018. Hong Kong gobbled up nearly $308 million in the same year.

All told, the U.S. exported $1.65 billion worth of variety meats in 2018 – slight below the $1.8 billion it sold in 2017. The robust offal trade benefits U.S. sellers and foreign customers alike. But underneath the impressive top-line figures lies another beneficiary: U.S. farmers and ranchers.

Going Whole Hog

Farmers and ranchers do not sell offal products directly to foreign customers. However, they sell their animals to meat processing companies who do. The price these processors are willing to pay for cattle and hogs is based on the overall value they can derive from each carcass.

Unlike traditional consumer products, which reach their highest value when they are fully assembled, a carcass is valuable for its individual parts. Manufacturing facilities are often referred to as assembly plants, but a meat processing facility is more akin to a disassembly plant. Animal carcasses are broken down into disparate parts and sold separately. The more a processor can sell individual parts for, the more the carcass is ultimately worth.

When it comes to variety meats, the best prices can typically be found in foreign countries where offal is more popular. The products that American consumers find less desirable fetch a premium overseas. International trade therefore allows the U.S. meat industry to capitalize on differences in consumer preferences and maximize value.

If meat processors were limited to the domestic market, they would receive a lower price for variety meats. Offal products would likely end up being sold at a discount and rendered into pet food or livestock feed. The reduction in overall carcass value would negatively impact the prices that U.S. farmers and ranchers get paid for their animals.

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In recent years, variety meats have caught the attention of some U.S. chefs and foodies. But a widespread offal renaissance in American kitchens is unlikely. Foreign customers will remain the dominant purchasers of edible offal in the foreseeable future. As far as U.S. producers are concerned, that is not such a bad thing – they are happy to live high on the hog.