Pork is China’s favourite meat. The country’s 1.4 billion people consumed 56 million tonnes of the stuff last year – equal to the rest of the world combined.
But as the Communist-led country prepares for the seventieth anniversary of its founding on October 1, prices are skyrocketing because of African swine fever and a crackdown on small scale farmers.
To help keep people in celebratory mood the government has begun releasing pork supplies from its strategic reserves.
At a market in Beijing, where pensioners gather of a morning to sing revolutionary songs, one man told WiC he had wanted to buy a cut of fatty pork to make Mao Zedong’s favourite dish – braised pork belly.
“I bought mince instead. I can make it go further,” he explained.
African swine fever arrived in China last summer. Some 1.2 million animals have been culled in response and many more have died. According to figures from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs China’s pig population was 32% smaller in July than it was at the same time last year.
It didn’t give exact figures for the number of animals lost but at the end of 2018 the ministry said China was home to 400 million live swine. Different media outlets have calculated a drop of between 60 million and 100 million hogs since the epidemic first took hold. As a result, the price of pork rose 47% year-on-year in August, but many are predicting it could go higher still.
Government officials, on the other hand, are claiming that the price increases have now “stabilised”.
Chinese consumers, who have been sharing stories of pork inflation online, pointed out that “stabilising” isn’t such a good thing if prices are already exceptionally high.
Some shared images of necklaces made from pork belly to show what a “luxury” the meat has become; others said their local restaurants were no longer handing out printed menus because the price of any pork dish was changing daily.
Life Times, a publication part-owned by the People’s Daily, helpfully suggested people should simply eat less pork. “Excessive consumption of pork will make it easier to gain weight, and cholesterol will increase the burden on our blood vessels and heart,” it warned.
The most recent figures from the Ministry of Commerce show that the wholesale price of pork is Rmb34.54 ($5.1) a kilo, while beef remains higher at Rmb64.54 a kilo.
To help slow the rise in price ahead of the seventieth anniversary, several provincial governments have begun releasing meat from their frozen pork reserves.
This week the central government announced it would also sell 10,000 metric tonnes from its reserves to bring down prices.
The pork – all foreign-purchased – was auctioned online on Thursday afternoon.
“No transaction shall exceed 300 tonnes,” a notice from the China Merchandise Reserve Management Centre, the state-owned company that manages the stockpile, said.
Twenty-nine regional governments also increased the amount of money they give as food subsidies to students, the sick and the elderly to help cover the price rises. And the Ministry of Transport scrapped highway tolls for trucks carrying pigs and pork products.
However, the pig population is unlikely to bounce back soon. Sows take six months to reach sexual maturity and with so many wiped out by the epidemic it will take years to rebuild the nation’s herd.
In addition to the damage done by the disease there is the fact that many small-scale pig farmers have been put out of business in recent years by new rules designed to enhance animal health and environmental safety.
While the reforms might have helped stop some of the spread of the fever, they led to the pig population being already reduced going into this crisis.
One of China’s vice-premiers Hu Chunhua told reporters last month that China faces a 10 million tonne pork shortfall this year. That’s more pork than is for sale in global export markets.
When the Year of the Pig ends on January 25 Chinese consumers will still be paying more for their pork dumpling fillings than they expected when the year began.
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