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Pork is the most popular meat in China and its price has a big impact on the public's inflationary expectations. Pigs are the main source of protein in China as they are in Southeast Asia, and Melanesia. The Chinese eat about as much pork per capita as Americans and collectively eat about half the world’s pork.

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “China's leaders have good reason for concern. Pig meat is the fuel that powers the populace. Closing in on 100 pounds per person annually, the Chinese eat about twice as much pork as Americans, stuffing it into their dumplings, barbecuing it with honey and stewing it with pickled greens. As Vice President Joe Biden learned on his recent visit to a Beijing restaurant whose specialties are pork liver and intestine, nary a part of the hog is wasted.” [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2011]

Pork consumption has risen with China’s prosperity, increasing by 45 percent between 1993 and 2005 from 25 to 35 kilograms. During the 1990s, pork production increased by 70 percent, with much of the growth occurring in densely-populated coastal areas. "When someone says they're eating 'meat' in China, they mean they're eating pork," Feng Yonghui, an industry analyst for the pork market website soozhu.com, told the Los Angeles Times. "Most people can't live without it."

Chinese eat every part the pig and often consider the ears, tongues and snouts to be the choicest parts. Unlike other domesticated animals, pigs are prized as source of meat and little else. They can't be ridden, milked or used to pull or carry things. But they are one of the most efficient sources of meat. For every 100 pounds of feed consumed by a pig it produces 20 pounds of meat (compared 14 pounds for chicken and 7 pounds for cattle). A Chinese adage goes, "The world will be in peace as long as there are grains and pork." favored curs of mear include ribs, lean tenderloin and juicy pig's feet, known as zhu ti.

On all the ways she can cook pork at home a 71-year-old grandmother told the Los Angeles Times, "I can make mu shu pork. I can stir fry it with carrots and cucumbers. I can even 'red' cook it," Wang said, describing the famous sweet and sticky braised pork belly favored by Mao Tse-tung.” Roasted pig is sometimes prepared in a Chinese Box, a sheet-metal-lined plywood box. In parts of southwestern China, pigs are gutted, salted and sealed. The meat inside the hide stays preserved for years. National Geographic photographer Micheal Yamashita samples some and said it was "sweet and quite tasty."

Shi Zhijun, owner of a Beijing restaurant that sells pork-filled steamed buns, told the Los Angeles Times, "Eating pork is good for people. Everybody should eat at least a half-jin [500 grams] every day. It's very nutritious”. It helps people grow. If you don't eat pork you will be very thin and weak." Pork is used in half the items on the restaurant’s menu.

See Food Under Life

Pork Production in China

left China, by far the world's biggest producer of pork, is home to about half the world's porcine population with 460 million pigs. That's about seven times more than the United States, the second-largest producer.

During the 1990s, pork production increased by 70 percent, with much of the growth occurring in densely-populated coastal areas.

China's government is so sensitive to the country's appetite that it maintains a strategic reserve of 200,000 tons of frozen pork. It has tapped that secret stash in recent weeks to increase supply. But analysts said it will make little difference in a nation that consumes 100,000 tons of pork daily. [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2011]

In the old days pig farming was a pretty basic enterprise. Villagers and even some urbanites kept hardy black and white varieties that required little care and cost almost nothing. These days pig farming is much more industrialized. After the Tiananmen square protest in 1989, which were partly fueled by high food prices, the government began offering economic incentives to launch China’s first concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to meet the growing demand for pork. One of the largest CAFO’s today, Guangzhou Lizhi Farms in Guangdong Province, embraces 60 white hog houses, interspersed with some water treatment ponds, for 100,000 hogs.

Importance of Pork to the Chinese Economy

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Pork’s importance goes far beyond prices at the corner noodle stand. Economists follow its movements to predict government policy shifts on inflation. “"The continued rise in inflation so far this year, which neither we nor the market had anticipated, was entirely caused by rising prices for pork," Mark Williams, chief China economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a recent research note to clients. [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2011]

It takes five months to a year to get piglets ready for slaughter. Populations have been growing in recent months. Still, Feng of soozhu.com says there's little policy makers can do but sit and wait. "The government has limited options," he said. "They can import more, but most of the production is already in China."

High Price of Pork in China

Wholesale prices for pork climbed by more than 60 percent in 2011 because of tight supplies; that's fueling inflation and squeezing household budgets. Basic stir-fry meat costs about $2.50 per pound, or about one-sixth a laborer's daily wage.

Pork prices began rising significantly in the middle of 2010 when Chinese farmers reduced production in response to high feed costs and shrinking profit margins. A spate of hog diseases also cut into the supply. The number of pigs slaughtered in July 2011 was about 10 percent lower than a year earlier, according to the Ministry of Commerce. Meanwhile, production of beef, lamb and poultry is on the rise.

"Pork prices keep skyrocketing," Liu Yuman, a researcher for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, wrote in an editorial in the Beijing Youth Daily last week. "Experts suggest that it's time for consumers to change their buying and eating habits. Chicken is high in protein but low in fat, calories and cholesterol. It should replace pork to become the main dish on people's dining tables." [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2011]

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Li Shao, a 65-year-old retiree, is eating more lamb. But the taste for pork is hard to shake. Shopping recently at Wu Mart, a popular Chinese supermarket chain, Li spent 10 minutes picking through a bin of fatty pork, one of the cheapest cuts available. She finally settled on a piece that cost about $5 and told herself that cutting back was probably good for her family's health. "I'm getting old, and my grandson is only 3 years old," the gray-haired Li said. "It's probably for the better."

Not everyone is put off by the high pork prices. The Los Angeles Times described Huang Hajin, a Beijing-based butcher who pointed to his offerings on a blood-stained wooden table---which including standard domestic cuts of loin meat and shoulder, as well as feet and thigh bones imported from the U.S., all of it was about 50 percent more expensive than a year before--- and said, "But people are still buying," said Huang. "If you don't eat pork, what else can you eat?”

Pig Producers and the High Price of Pork

From Jingezhai village outside Beijing, Reuters reported: “The long, red-brick structures in this village on the outskirts of Beijing contain some of this year's fastest appreciating Chinese assets: pigs. Their owner Ma Shihong is in no rush to sell. Her fleshy, pale-downed porkers are worth 70 percent more than last year on the market, with live pig prices, and their girth, growing daily. "Each pig can grow about a half-kilogram a day, which means 10 yuan," said Ma, 43. "For 100 pigs, that's 1,000 yuan more for each day I don't sell them." [Source: Reuters. July 9, 2011]

Outside Ma's tidy, air-conditioned office, 3,000 pigs sprawled in pungent rows of concrete pens, snuffling in anticipation of their evening corn-and-soybean meal. The reluctance of pork producers like Ma to sell only accentuates this year's pig shortage and high feed costs, which have led to record pork prices -- the average pork price in China has shot up 65 percent from a year ago, according to official figures.

Ma Shihong has prospered along with the soaring prices. Ma, who saves costs by raising her own piglets and immunizing them herself, and gets economies of scale from her large operation, is reaping the full benefits of the price rises -- grossing some 2,300 yuan ($355) or more per pig on an 1,000 yuan outlay.

Not everyone has fared so well. In particular, small-scale farmers who don't breed their own pigs have seen the price of piglets nearly double this year, squeezing their profit margins and putting some out of business. Price volatility hasn't helped. Pork prices touched a 34-month-low in June of last year, before climbing up since then.

Many small farmers were forced to exit the market last year when prices plunged, exacerbating the current supply problems. "A lot of them lost money, so they stopped raising pigs because they couldn't take it anymore," said Feng Yonghui, chief analyst with the pig market website Soozhu.com. Indeed, phone calls to the numbers listed for dozens of pork producers in the metro Beijing area revealed disconnected lines or reached former pig farmers who said they had left the business.

Pigs in China

20080316-trans-2-pigs-cart Nolls.jpg China has more pigs and hogs than any country in the world---more than one half forth of the world's total. It is to about 500 million pigs and is the world’s forth largest exporter of live and slaughtered hogs. Most pigs are eaten domestically. The number of pigs in China has roughly doubled since the early 1970s. According to the Guinness Book of Records, China was home to 414.6 million of the world's 759.9 million hogs in 1995. The number increased from about 88 million in 1955 to an estimated 331 million in 1985. Hogs are raised in large numbers in every part of China except in Muslim areas in the northwest. Most hogs are raised in pens by individual farm households, but in the mid-1980s the Chinese were constructing large mechanized feeding operations on the outskirts of major cities. Before the 1980s the state's major goal was to increase output with little regard to the ratio of meat to fat. In the 1980s consumers became more conscious of fat content, and breeders and raisers were shifting to the production of leaner hogs.[Source: Library of Congress]

The Chinese Meishan pig, arguably the world's ugliest animal, has a face so wrinkled and so scrunched up its eyes, mouth and nose can hardly function. Nonetheless it has several attributes which farmers around the world find attractive. It is the world most fertile pig, with litters of 15 to 25 piglets compared to 8 to 12 produced by U.S. pigs. What's more, Meishan's become sexually mature at three months, half the time of U.S. pigs. The only problem with Meishans is that they grow slowly and produce too much fat. Biologists are now trying to produce a meatier faster-growing Meishan hybrid using genetic engineering. [National Geographic Geographica, September 1992].

China consumes half the world’s pork. Pigs are a major source of income for many small farmers. Their excrement is use to fertilize orchards. In many cases female household members are in charge of taking care of pigs.. Industrial scale pig farming is not widely practiced in China.

Pig-raising at one time was very profitable as incomes rose and more people could afford meat in the urban and coastal areas. By the mid 2000s there was an oversupply and prices for pork dropped significantly to around $1 per kilogram while the cost of feed rose, making pig-rasing no longer very profitable. Things got really bad after the outbreaks of the pig-borne disease in 2005

Sichuan is China’s largest pork producing region. It is home to 55 million pigs and one of the world’s densest pig populations. About 14 percent of China’s pork comes from Sichuan. There peasant households with 20 or fewer pigs account for about 70 percent of the hogs raised. Describing the economic of pig farming on this level one feed company manager told AP, “Peasants raise one litter, earn some money, raise the next, lose it all.”


Unlike other domesticated animals, pigs are prized as sources of meat and little else. They can't be ridden, milked or used to pull or carry things but they are the most efficient meat producer known to man.

Hogs is the term used by scientists and people in the livestock industry to describe the family of animals that includes pigs and boars. The term pig is used to describe a young hog. In the livestock industry, few hogs live to old age and most are technically pigs when they are slaughtered. A male hog is called a boar. A female is called a sow. Young are called piglets. A group is called a flock.

Pigs are believed to have been domesticated from boars 10,000 years ago in Turkey, a Muslim country that ironically frowns upon pork eating today. At a 10,000-year-old Turkish archeological site known as Hallan Cemi, scientists looking for evidence of early agriculture stumbled across of large cache of pig bones instead. The archaeologists reasoned the bones came from domesticated pigs, not wild ones, because most of the bones belonged to males over a year old. The females, they believe, were saved so they could produce more pigs.

Pigs were originally tuber-eating forest and swamp creatures. They had difficulty living in the deserts of the Middle East because they don't sweat and therefore can't cool themselves. When pigs were first domesticated there were vast forest areas in what is now Turkey and the Middle East. There was enough water and shade to support small number of pigs, but as population in the Middle East grew, deforestation degraded the environments best suited for pigs.

Book: The Complete Pig: An Entertaining History of Pigs by Sara Rath (Voyageur, 2000)

Pig Characteristics

Hogs belong to the large group of even-toed hoofed animals known as Artiodactyls. They are more closely related to hippopotamuses than cattle or sheep. Some hogs get to be quite large. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world's largest pig weighed 2,552 pounds.

Hogs have a unique flexible muzzle. "The nostrils open on a tough, movable, disklike plate. The inside of snout is firmly attached to the skull by means of gristle. Primitive hog types living in the wild use the snout to lift, shove, dig and break through brush in search of food."

Hogs have four toes. The second and third are functional; the first and forth are situated on either sides of the foot and serve no real purpose. Pigs don't sweat and therefore can't cool themselves. The wallow in the mud to keep cool. This practice of wallowing, sometimes in their own feces, has given them the bum rap as dirty, filthy animals.

All species of pig have pair of teeth on either side of their head that have been turned into tusks. They are usually bigger among males than females. Males use them to fight. Pig molars are low-crowned like those of man. Their internal organs are also similar to those of humans. Scientists are working on adapting pig organs so they can be used in transplants with humans.

Pig saliva contains pheremones such as S-alphandrosterol that communicate sexual desires. Male pigs and truffles release this steroid. Females will go to great lengths to get a whiff of the stuff which is why female pigs are such good truffle hunters.

Pigs are very smart. They are often ranked higher than dogs on intelligence lists. They make affectionate pets and have been taught to do a variety of tricks. They are also more independent. Pigs are difficult to herd over long distances.

Pig Feeding and Mating Behavior

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Hogs are not cud-chewing ruminants like sheep, cattle and goats and antelope, which have four-chambered stomachs. Pigs and other members of swidae family have single stomachs that can take in and digest all kinds of food.

Pigs traditionally fed mostly on acorns on the forest floor and roots, seeds, and acorns they rooted in the soil. They can eat grass but can not subsist off of it alone like sheep, horses and cattle. On farms pigs have traditionally been fed corn, clover, soybeans, and alfalfa and these days but these days are given special hog feeds that contain vitamins and minerals and often antibiotics and hormones. Hogs will eat almost anything. One ate my shit after I did my business in a field in a hill tribe village. .

Pigs can also multiple very quickly. Sows reach sexual maturity at age one and can produce two liters a year. The litters average eight piglets and produced after a four month gestation period. In contrast cows become sexually mature after two years and generally only bear one calf after a nine month gestation period. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world's largest liter contained 37 piglets.

Pigs as Food

Pigs are by far the most efficient protein and fat producing animal domesticated by man. Almost 35 percent of the food by weight fed to pig is converted to meat, compared to 13 percent for sheep, 14 percent for chicken and 6.5 percent for cattle. In the United States and Europe the most common pig breeds are the Duroc-Jersey, the black Poland China, the spotted Poland China, the Chester white, Tamworth, White Yorkshire, and Berkshire.

Large litters of piglets grow fast into meat producers. The piglets can be fattened up to a 400 pound hog in six months. Pigs are slaughtered when they are four to ten months of age, and they weigh 175 to 225 pounds. Beyond this weight it becomes more expensive to feed them for the amount of meat they produce.

Industrially-raised hogs are treated horribly. Piglets are weaned from the mothers at 10 days as opposed to 13 weeks in nature. They are quickly fattened up with hormone- and antibiotic-laced feed and never let out doors. Their premature weaning leaves them with a lifelong desire to suck and chew. In confinement this desire is often manifested in the sucking and chewing of the tails of other pigs that are made so moribund by their treatment they don’t fight back. Often times the tail stubs become infected. Sick pigs are clubbed to death on the spot.

Hogs produce pork, hams, bacon, sausages, and lard. Pork is contains high-grade fats and proteins. Lard is rarely used for cooking anymore. It has largely been replaced by vegetable oils but is widely used in processed food. Hog tissue is used in some medicines; hog fat finds it way into is used in some industrial chemicals. Hog hair is made into bristles for brushes. Blood is sometimes used to make fertilizer.

Uses of Pigs in China

Unlike other domesticated animals, pigs are prized as source of meat and little else. They can't be ridden, milked or used to pull or carry things. They are also one of the most efficient sources of meat. For every 100 pounds of feed consumed by a pig it produces 20 pounds of meat (compared 14 pounds for chicken and 7 pounds for cattle).

In some parts of China, simply saying the word for pig is considered so disgusting the animals are referred to as "long-nosed generals."

An outbreak of pig disease (streptococcus suis) that killed 37 people and sickened 200 people in Sichuan resulted in a decline in pork sales. See Pig-Borne Disease, Health

In China, pigs are scavengers who play a vital role supply protein and fertilizer. They are primarily raised by households and according to University of Illinois agriculture specialist G.F. Sprague "fed on waste materials not suitable for human food; vegetable refuse, ground and fermented rice hulls, sweet potato and soya bean vines, water hyacinths and so forth." Also pigs are valued "almost as much for manure as for their meat."

Mao Zedong once wrote that "the pig is fertilizer factory on four legs." In the Mao era Chinese peasants were allowed to have pigs to raise food for themselves but not to sell.

Pig Diseases

China loses about 25 million pigs a year to disease. Farmers routinely inject pigs with water to increase their weight.

The highly-infectious blue-ear pig disease---or a disease similar to it---killed hundreds of thousands pigs nationwide in 2007 and led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands more, according to government sources. Many think the true figure was much higher. Some wondered if the disease was blue-ear disease, which normally causes pigs to get sick but doesn’t kill them in large numbers.

The outbreak began in early April 2006 in the Guangdong Province town of Silao, where animals stopped eating developed high fevers and started hemorrhaging under their skin. More than 2 million pigs became infected and 400,000 died. disease spread inland, reaching Sichuan as well as Vietnam and Myanmar. Many farmers were worried that their pigs might get the disease, resulting in panic selling.

By August 2007, the disease had spread to 25 of China’s provinces and regions. One farmer in a village that lost 300 pigs in a few weeks told the Washington Post, “It was quick, very quick. Before we knew something was wrong , they were all dead.”

The disease caused pork prices to soar 87 percent between the summer of 2006 and the summer of 2007, which in turn caused China to record some of its highest inflation levels since the mid 1990s. The government said the situation was under control and the disease had been isolated using quarantines and vaccines that had been developed and widely distributed. Many in the health industry, based on the way SARS and bird flu were handled, had their doubts.

The Chinese government was not very forthcoming with information about the disease. It even refused to send sample to major international laboratories so the disease could be verified. Many suspect this was occurred in part so China could protect its pork industry at time when Chinese food safety had become and international issue.

Image Sources: 1) Lottie Moon; 2) Harvard Public Health; 3, 5) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 4) Frog in a Well blog; 6) Bucklin archives http://www.bucklinchinaarchive.com/ ; 7, 8) University of Washington; 9) Julie Chao http://juliechao.com/pix-china.html

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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