Chinese pork imports could double as ASF takes its toll

Chinese pork imports are forecast to double this year as the true scale of the country’s African swine fever outbreak becomes evident.

Additional Chinese demand is already having an impact on the global market and analysts are predicting the China effect could support higher prices later this year, as well as providing fresh export opportunities for UK producers.

Official figures from China put the numbers animals of slaughtered so far at around one million, with 113 confirmed cases at the end of March. However, there are growing suggestions from within the industry that the outbreak is being vastly under-reported.

Sun Dawu, chairman of Hebei Dawu Agriculture Group, said ‘most cases were not reported’ in the province his company operates in and its neighbours. “A majority of pig farms in Hebei have found cases of swine fever, and the situation is similar in neighbouring Henan and Liaoning provinces,” he told the South China Morning Post.

Officials in Shandong province, a major pig production area, said stocks of breeding pigs fell more than 40% between August and February, Reuters reported. Shandong produced 47 million pigs in 2017, about 7 percent of all hogs sent to Chinese slaughterhouses, according to official data. Yet it has only reported one case.

China’s agriculture ministry has published figures showing the country’s pig herd was down 16.6% in February from a year earlier, including 5.4% since January, with the sow herd down 19.1% year-on-year. Live pig prices hit a 14-month high in mid-March.

There is little sign of the outbreak being brought under control and China, with a population of 1.4 billion eating around 55 million tonnes of pigmeat a year, has been forced to look to the global market.

EU fresh and frozen pork exports to China were up 18% year-on-year in January, with anecdotal reports that extra Chinese demand is helping to firm up prices. UK pork exports to China were also 72% year-on-year in January to 4,500 tonnes. US hog futures soared to record levels after China imported 24,000 tonnes of pork from the US in a week in mid-March, despite 70% tariffs.

Forecasts of the long-term impact vary. Oscar Tjakra, a director of food and agribusiness research at Rabobank, told a conference in China pork production will fall by up to 20% in 2019, resulting in import volumes doubling to 2 million tonnes.

The US Department of Agriculture has forecast that China’s total pig numbers will drop by 13% to 374 million in 2019 and expects a more modest, but still significant 28% hike in imports.

AHDB lead analyst Duncan Wyatt said the China-led boost in demand for UK product could be ‘particularly useful’ under a no-deal Brexit scenario due to the compromised competitiveness of exports to the EU.

Ed Wright, Cranswick’s export director said there were ‘huge opportunities in China’, particularly in light of the impact ASF is having on the pig herd. “The world is going to grow pigs for China,” he told Pig World (see the April issue for the second part of our China special).

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About The Author

Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.