China’s pork industry under threat as African swine fever spreads to all provinces

Frank Tang
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China’s pork industry under threat as African swine fever spreads to all provinces

African swine fever, which is deadly to pigs but not harmful to humans, has now spread to all Chinese mainland provinces since the first case was confirmed in August, posing a serious threat to the hog industry and raising concerns about consumer inflation.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs on Sunday said 146 pigs had died from the highly contagious virus at six farms on the southernmost province of Hainan. The first confirmed cases on the tropical island were reported on Friday, when officials said 77 pigs had died from the disease at four farms.

The cases in Hainan mean the virus has spread to all 31 mainland provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions in less than nine months since it was first confirmed at a pig farm not far from China’s border with Russia.

China raises about half the world’s pigs, and the spread of African swine fever is causing huge disruption to the supply of pork in the country. Financial services firm Rabobank estimated that up to 200 million pigs – nearly half the number in China – could be culled or die from the disease during the epidemic, saying there was not enough pork in “the whole world combined” to fill the potential supply shortfall.

Tang Ke, head of the agriculture ministry’s market and economy information department, said the price of pork had already shot up in March and could rise by as much as 70 per cent in the second half of this year.

The average wholesale hog price increased 6.3 per cent in March from the previous month, and it was up 7.6 per cent from a year ago, according to ministry data on 400 counties across China.

Meanwhile, livestock numbers are falling, with 18.8 per cent fewer pigs on farms in March from a year ago. The number of breeding sows also fell 21 per cent from a year earlier, the largest decline in a decade.

A separate survey from the ministry of the weekly changes in agricultural product prices showed pork had surged 22.8 per cent last week from the same time last year.

A new hog cycle has started, and this round could be more long-lasting and much stronger, given the outbreak of African swine fever. Pork prices are set to become a major source of consumer inflation this year.

The rapidly rising price of pork, a staple meat on Chinese dinner tables, is set to result in a higher reading for headline consumer inflation. China’s consumer price index rose 2.3 per cent in March, still within the government target of 3 per cent for 2019, but pork inflation only contributed 0.12 percentage points, according to the statistics bureau.

“A new hog cycle has started, and this round could be more long-lasting and much stronger, given the outbreak of African swine fever,” Lu Ting, chief China economist at Nomura, wrote in a research note.

“Pork prices are set to become a major source of consumer inflation this year,” he said.

China has reported more than 100 cases of swine fever to date – from remote areas in the far western Xinjiang region to the southern province of Guangdong that borders Hong Kong.

With a reduced pork supply at home, China has had to buy more from overseas. In the first two months of the year, the country’s pork imports increased 10 per cent to 207,000 tonnes, the agriculture ministry said.

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