The price of pork around the world is set to soar as the outbreak of a deadly virus sweeps China and surrounding countries necessitating the cull of millions of animals.
Experts say the epidemic of African swine fever is set to have as big an impact on the world meat industry as Bovine spongiform encephalopathy – or mad cow disease – which swept the world in the 1990s.
In China, as was the case in Britain at the height of the BSE crisis, entire herds of animals are having to be killed and burned or buried in an effort to contain the disease.
Mongolia, Vietnam and Cambodia are also fighting outbreaks and the disease has also been reported in wild boar in Eastern Europe and Germany.
Denmark is erecting a 43-mile fence in a bid to keep out infected animals and customs officials have been placed on high alert in Britain and across the European Union.
Since the virus was first reported in China in August last year more than a million pigs have been culled globally and international wholesale pork prices have climbed by as much as 20 per cent.
“African swine fever will be the biggest influence on global meat markets possibly for the next few years, if not possibly the decade,” said Tim Ryan, a Singapore-based market analyst with trade group Meat & Livestock Australia. “I don’t think there’s going to be enough meat around the world available to actually fill the gap.”
China is the single biggest consumer of pork in the world and even in normal times has a near-insatiable appetite for the product.
Now with 20 and 30 per cent of its livestock lost, it is turning to international markets to fulfill demand.
It’s pork imports – which mostly come from the European Union, Canada and Brazil – are expected to surge 40 per cent to 1.7 million tons this year, before increasing to 2.1 million tons in 2020, the China Daily newspaper reported, citing a report from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in Beijing.
Brazil’s pork exports to China may climb as much as 61 per cent to 250,000 tons this year, Adolfo Fontes, an analyst at Rabobank, said this month.
The fever, which cannot be passed to humans, is fatal in pigs and spreads when animals consume affected meat products or come into contact with contaminated animals or materials.
As yet there is no approved vaccine against the disease although scientists, including at the Pirbright Institute in the UK, are working on one.
According to the European Commission the average price of pork in the European Union has gone up about 20 per cent compared to the same price last year.
Consumer prices in of bacon, sausage and other pork product in the UK have not yet started to climb but are expected to do so as the crisis grows and the summer barbecue season drives up demand.
UK pork producers say that stockpiling in advance of March 29, the day the UK was due to leave the European Union, have also worked to keep UK prices stable.
Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, said that rising prices in Europe were due to demand from China, which before the outbreak of African swine fever was home to half of the world’s pig population.
“Exports from the EU into China have shot up. So far, China has lost about 20 per cent of its breeding herd,” she said.
She added:“The fever is in every single province in China and it’s also in Cambodia and Vietnam. It’s spreading and nothing has been put in place to stop it. The Chinese authorities have reportedly brought in a requirement to test animals when they arrive in the abattoir but there are still a hell of a lot of animals being transported all over China and very few controls on transport and biosecurity.”
Richard Brown, director of Gira, an industry analyst, said that African swine fever was set to have as big an impact on the worldwide meat industry as BSE.
“The Chinese eat far more pork than any other protein. A very large number of pigs are going to die because this is a naive herd – they’ve never been exposed to this disease. In China, pigs are reared largely in backyard and small family farms and there is little biosecurity. The Chinese government was slow to accept they had African swine fever and because they haven’t compensated farmers people have not admitted they have it,” he said.
He added that Chinese pork production is set to reduce by about 13 million tons this year - about the same amount of pork that the US produces every year.
About 60 per cent of the pork consumed in the UK is from Europe, said Dr Davies, so price rises will eventually hit the UK.
She added that price rises may bite sooner in restaurants, hotels and other food outlets, the majority of whose pork is imported.
“Some indications have shown that in the first quarter of this year the price has gone up by about 40p a kilo which is a massive price hike,” she said.
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