Piggy In The Middle: China’s Pork Trade Under Threat

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There is a plague loose in China, sweeping across the mainland after an outbreak in Hainan Island.

The symptoms are ghastly; the disease starts by raising body temperature before causing discharge from the nose and eyes, as if the sufferer was infected by a bad case of influenza. This disease, however, is far worse. Within days, most infections result in death. The good news is that humans are (so far at least) immune to the illness. The bad news is that it’s affecting pigs on a colossal scale; so much so that some experts believe China’s entire pork trade may be under threat.

The disease in question isn’t Chinese in origin; it’s known as African swine fever virus. When people think of wildlife in Africa, they tend to think of the majestic creatures which roam the savannas. Lions, elephants, buffalo, and rhinos are the first that come to mind – the kind of wildlife which makes up the cast of popular online slots like ‘Hot Safari’ and ‘Safari King’ over at the MoneyReels.com website – but Africa is home to many other, more commonplace beasts. Pigs are one of them, and in this case, the Government can’t afford to be taking any gambles with treating the disease now that it’s crossed continents. Unlike those slot games, where a player accepts they can win or lose on any spin and try again, the Government may only have one shot at stopping this outbreak before it devastates farmers and the wider economy. The crisis needs a policy that’s going to hit the jackpot, and it needs it now.

There is no known medical cure for the illness. Because of that, the only possible treatment is mass culling – the same approach that British farms took to an outbreak of BSE in cattle many years ago. To their credit, culls are already underway in many farms across China. Official statistics state that over a million pigs have already been culled in an effort to halt the progress of the disease. Unfortunately, that may not be enough. That’s not down to the Government’s approach – it’s down to the approach of individual farmers.

There have been instances of farmers speaking to the press under the condition of anonymity, and those farmers have confirmed that they know that the disease is present among their livestock, but they’ve failed in their duty to report it to the authorities. Paranoia and suspicion are usually cited as the reasons why. The Government has gone on record as stating that all farmers who have their animals culled will be financially compensated for the loss. It would seem that some of the farmers simply don’t believe that promise, and therefore won’t take the risk of losing their livelihoods by reporting the problem.

Unless a solution can be found, the consequences of the disease could reach far beyond China’s borders. The Chinese are the world’s largest consumers of pork and pig products, but they’re also the world’s largest exporters of pork. Financiers who deal with and lend to the agricultural industry on a global scale have adjusted their forecasts to show an expectation of nearly 200 million fewer pigs being produced by China this year. That’s enormous in terms of global scale, and will almost inevitably lead to shortages in some areas, and the price of pork increasing due to inflated demand.

If another nation were capable of stepping up and covering the shortfall in supply the issue may not be as bad, but China is not the only major pork producer trying to deal with African swine fever. There have been reports of the disease infecting livestock in neighboring Vietnam and Cambodia. Unless it can be controlled there, there’s potential for the outbreak to spread even farther, extending across the globe from East to West. The further it goes, the more animals will be culled, and the more pronounced the problem will become.

Aside from the cull, China is also attempting other methods of preventing further spread of the illness. New hygiene guidelines have been drawn up, quarantine zones have been established, and the transport of live pigs is extensively restricted. All of those measures will be effective in farms which have confirmed that they’re suffering from the issue, but so long as some farms refuse to file reports, the effectiveness of the strategy will be limited. Even though legal punishments have been threatened against farms which fail to make such reports, anecdotal tales of dead pigs being dumped in rivers suggest that those threats are still being ignored in some quarters.

At the time of writing, the price of pork within China has increased by 7.6% compared to where it stood at this time last year. The most dire prediction from those who keep a watch over the industry fears that the figure could rise as high as 70% by the end of the year if effective solutions to the outbreak are not found. At that price, pork would simply disappear from the menu in many households, leading to a drop in demand and a stunting effect on the economy.

In the meantime, the Government is attempting to stave off a domestic pork shortage by importing more of the meat from abroad, which will alleviate the issue – albeit with an expense that’s likely to be passed on to consumers. Options on where such imports could take place from will dwindle if the outbreak continues to spread, and statistics indicate that the combined pork output of the rest of the world is insufficient to make up the shortfall in the event that China had to cull its own supply and withdraw from the trade altogether.

Pork has long been a staple food of Chinese families, and a type of meat which no household is complete without. With drastic times calling for drastic measures, it remains to be seen what the next step in arresting the crisis will be. For both farmers and consumers, it’s to be hoped that whatever the solution might be, it’s found sooner rather than later.

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