Rarely found on menus in the U.S., variety meat – also called offal or fancy meat – takes many forms: kidneys, livers, stomachs, tendons, aortas, cheek meat, oxtails and more. And because it's highly sought after in key export markets of Egypt, Japan, Peru and Mexico, variety meat is gold to the U.S. beef industry.
According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, total U.S. beef exports in 2012 set a new record at $5.51 billion. Beef offal represented $703.1 million, or about 12% of that. It also accounted for 28.4% of the total volume of beef exports.
And, virtually 100% of the U.S. livestock herd is represented in variety meat exports – some part of every animal is sold to international customers.
"Demand for both large and small intestines would tank without the international market," said Jerry Wiggs, export salesman for Greater Omaha Packing Company Inc. "We are selling large intestines to South Korea or Koreans who recently moved to the U.S."
Wiggs said OPC just recently resumed selling small intestines to Mexico, where they had been banned since BSE was found in the U.S. in late 2003.
"Without those countries, the markets for those products would basically disappear," he said.
The same can be said for many beef variety meat items. More than 90% of U.S.-produced beef tongues are exported, primarily to customers in Northern Asia and Mexico. Buyers in the Middle East, South America and Russia – when the Russian market is open – buy more than 9 out of 10 U.S. beef livers, hearts and kidneys. Consumers in Mexico and Southeast Asia consume more than 75% of U.S. beef stomachs.
Not only are international destinations important for consumption of beef items that aren't eaten in the U.S., but variety meat could be considered a "gateway meat" for consumers first trying U.S. products.
"There are many examples of how variety meat items are the first point of entry for U.S. beef into developing markets," said Mark Gustafson, vice president of international sales at JBS. "These consumers may be seeking protein, but they can't always pay the price of high-end cuts. Variety meat items are very economically priced protein."