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September 8, 2019

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Problem for pork in Year of the Pig

THE Year of Pig has not been easy on the pigs.

Due to outbreaks of African swine fever (ASF), pork meat is in short supply but demand is high. The virus is not harmful to humans, but heavy on the pigs and the pork industry. More than 1 million pigs have been slaughtered to contain the situation in China.

Nanning, capital of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and its largest city, initiated temporary price interventions on September 2. In the 10 major markets, pork is sold in limited quantities at limited prices, which are 10 percent less than the market average of the previous 10 days.

Four types of pork products are offered: lean meat, pork belly, leg meat and ribs. Each customer can only buy 1 kilo of the low-priced pork a day. In July, Guangxi saw the highest increase in pork prices of 54.5 percent.

In Shanghai, a small tray of regular sliced pork (240 grams and not expensive breeds) at Freshippo, supermarket chain under tech giant Alibaba, that can make a typical stir-fry dish for two is now 16.8 yuan (US$2.34). In July, it was 11.8 yuan.

The shortage of pork is an issue that can cause panic. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork, accounting for more than half of global market share. In 2018, China produced 54 million tons of pork. This is projected to decrease to 38 million tons this year, according to broker and consultancy INTL FCStone.

Pork prices have been increasing since March, but at a much faster speed since July. The year-on-year increase has surpassed 65 percent.

Pork makes up 60 percent of China’s total meat consumption, but it takes 13 months to raise pigs from pregnancy until they are ready to sell. The waves of ASF virus have caused great losses for pig farmers, both in money and confidence.

China has taken multiple measures to solve the pork crisis. On August 21, a State Council executive meeting presided over by Premier Li Keqiang proposed five measures to stabilize pig production and ensure supplies following the effects of the disease.

Subsidies to farms which have culled pigs will be dispensed more timely, and major pig producers and farm owners will receive more support in expanding their herds, according to a statement released after the meeting.

Local authorities should promptly remove bans and limits on raising pigs except those stipulated in laws and regulations, and large-scale farming should be promoted.

On September 2, the Ministry of Transport issued a notice to reinstate a green channel policy to assist the transport of pork. Between September 1 this year and June 30 next year, tolls are waived for vehicles transporting piglings and frozen pork.

With such supporting policies, pig farmers are being encouraged to increase production with the hope of supplying the market in a few months to stabilize prices.

China is also increasing imports to ease the shortage. It is estimated that China will import 3.3 million tons of pork this year and 4.2 million tons in 2020, compared with 2.1 million tons in 2018.

The price of imported pork falls between regular pork and meat from the famous Chinese breeds such as the black pig.

With no vaccination or cure for the ASF virus, the months leading to Chinese New Year (January 25, 2020) will be difficult for Chinese pig farmers and the pork market.

Pork shortages have also increased the demand for beef, lamb and poultry. The price of chicken and duck has also gone up as people turn to more affordable protein choices.

Pork is now the No.1 animal protein in China, but before the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), it was rarely seen on dining tables.

Butchering cattle for food was forbidden in ancient China, so the preferred meat choice was lamb. In the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), pork was cheaper than lamb, beef and horse meat.

Traditional Chinese medicine also underrated pork’s nutritional value, notable doctors such as Tao Hongjing (Southern Song Dynasty, 1127-1279) and Sun Simiao (Tang Dynasty) considered eating pork for long period of time made people more likely to get sick.

The literati in ancient China discovered many cheap ingredients that were previously overlooked, like crab and bamboo shoot. The turning point for pork was poet Su Shi (1037-1101) from the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), who was a well-known pork lover. Not wealthy, the poet found ways to cook pork, a cheap meat, into delicacies. He wrote verses about pork cuts that the rich disdained and the poor didn’t know how to cook.

Two pork dishes were named after Su, “Dongpo pork,” which is braised pork belly meat, and “Dongpo pork knuckle,” a dish that stews the large pork knuckle after boiling and steaming to make the meat super tender and soft.

Su lived in southern China where the environment was ideal to raise pigs. During the Southern Song Dynasty, pork gradually took the place of mutton as the dominant meat. Though the pork witnessed diminishing popularity in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), it still became the meat of choice in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and earned the title of darou, the “big meat.”

When Gaspar da Cruz, the Portuguese Dominican friar who arrived in China in the late Ming Dynasty, he wrote in his book “Tratado das Cousas da China” (Treatise on things Chinese) that Chinese people raised numerous pigs, pork was a favorite and it was made into strange cured meat.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was founded by the Manchu clan from northeastern China where mutton used to be eaten, but the imperial palace cuisine shifted to pork when they arrived in the Central Plain area. Pigs were used as sacrificial offerings in ritual ceremonies and the Manchu cuisine was also passionate about eating pork.

Today, pork is the No. 1 meat product in many provinces across China. People consume pork on a daily basis and it’s especially important in celebrating Chinese New Year.

Dishes such as sliced boiled pork with garlic paste sauce, stewed pork knuckle, braised giant meatballs, fried crunchy pork and stir-fried or steamed cured pork are must-haves for the dinner on the eve of the new year.

Pork also has symbolic meanings in Chinese culture. In some places, serving a pig’s head on the second day of the second month in the lunar calendar (the day known as dragon raising its head) wishes for a prosperous harvest in the new year.


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