China: Unprecedented

China: Unprecedented

Not so hot

China continues to astonish. In 2008, the country became the largest pork importer in history (one wonders who it is who’s kept a historical record of pork imports over the centuries). Unprecedented is how the levels were described: 1.925 million metric tons (4.2 billion lbs.) of pork and pork products, still amounting to only 5% of China’s overall pork consumption. How many pigs that actually represents isn’t part of the historical record. But we know that in 2007, more than 700 million pigs were raised and slaughtered in China itself.

Another astonishment: in March (2009) China’s poultry “stock” fell by an estimated one-third, as a result of outbreaks of avian flu and the global economic downturn. Many migrant workers, prime consumers of chicken, have been laid off. They can’t afford to buy it and their factory lunch rooms aren’t serving it, or at least not to as many people as before. Many chicken slaughter plants have shut down, and feed sales are way off. “It’s winter for the industry,” said one China based international feed executive. The drop in demand for chicken in China has been noted as a major factor, perhaps the major factor, in a worldwide drop in the price of soy — a prime chicken feed. Some Chinese orders for U.S. soy have even been cancelled.

Will the winter last now that it’s spring in China? We’ll be following the story. In the meantime, another piece of winter and spring poultry news. China is set to challenge through the World Trade Organization a ban on its poultry being imported to the U.S. These imports were banned in 2004, after China experienced several bird flu outbreaks. The U.S. measure is “discriminatory and protectionist,” says Yao Jian, a Chinese commerce ministry spokesperson. If chicken isn’t being eaten in China, the reasoning may go, why not in the U.S.?

At the same time, there’s this: the U.S. meat industry sees China as a prime, unexplored, market for beef exports. “Chinese per capita beef consumption is relatively high for a developing country, and as personal income grows we expect Chinese consumption to increase and the composition of the cuts and product they consume to change and expand,” says Thad Lively, U.S. Meat Export Federation senior vice president for policy, planning and research. China and the U.S. have yet to reach an agreement on beef exports from the U.S. to China. But the Federation is hopeful that the new U.S. administration will make one if its objectives such an agreement of global trade policy. Yes, it’s spring.