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Pork is the most popular meat in China and pigs are the main source of protein in China as they are in Southeast Asia, and Melanesia. China has the largest porcine population in the world. Its roughly 500 million pigs represent nearly half the global total. Some 70 percent of these animals are raised by small farmers,

The Economist noted in 2014: “Pigs have been at the centre of Chinese culture, cuisine and family life for thousands of years. Pork is the country’s essential meat. In Mandarin the word for “meat” and “pork” are the same. The character for “family” is a pig under a roof. The pig is one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac: those born in that year are said to be diligent, sympathetic and generous. Pigs signify prosperity, fertility and virility. Poems, stories and songs celebrate them. Miniature clay pigs have been found in graves from the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). Historians think people in southern China were the first in the world to domesticate wild boars, 10,000 years ago.

China is both the largest producer consumer of pork in the world, making up around 60 percent of China's total meat consumption. Since China's farming industries were liberalized in the late 1970s, pork consumption rose dramatically. Chinese citizens consume more than twice as much pork as the global average. [Source: Adam Taylor, Washington Post, May 5, 2016]

China consumes about 100,000 tons of pork daily. 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, “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]

Raising Hogs in China

China is by far the world's biggest producer of pork and is home to about half the world's pig population with over 500 million pigs. That's about seven times more than the United States, the second-largest producer. Some 70 percent of these animals are raised by small farmers, and mortality rates are high. In the town of Jiaxing alone nearly 750,000 pigs die of disease every year, estimates Mr. Lin. [Source: Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 2013]

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.

It takes five months to a year to get piglets ready for slaughter. Populations have been growing and producers often can't keep up with demand and that produces inflation not in the food sector but often in the economy as a whole. One there was one such shortage an analyst at soozhu.com said 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 in 2011

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

20080316-trans-2-pigs-cart Nolls.jpg 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

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.”

Uses of Pigs in China

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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.

Illegal Pork Trade in China

In March 2013, the carcasses of about 13,000 pigs found in Huangpu River, which flows through Shanghai. were pulled from its waters. Peter Ford wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “The discovery of the dead pigs has thrown a spotlight on a little-known practice that insiders say is not uncommon in China: Farmers sell pigs that have died from disease to underground traders, who then sell the pork illegally to consumers and food processing firms. Forty-six men were jailed in Wenling, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, for selling meat from sick pigs. Wenling is not far from Jiaxing, another hog-rearing district whence officials say the pigs found in the Huangpu are believed to have come. [Source: Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 2013 \\]

“In the past two years at least six other similar cases have come to court in different parts of China, suggesting that the practice is widespread. “The pig mortality rate is high and farmers sell the carcasses to people in the illegal business so as to recoup some of their losses,” says Feng Yonghui, an analyst with Zhongkeyiheng, an agri-business consultancy in Beijing. “Big cities supervise the animal trade strictly, so the sale of sick corpses is not common in Shanghai,” adds Lin Rongquan, a retired veterinarian who advises the Shanghai government on food safety issues. “But it happens in smaller cities because supervision departments don’t always do their job properly.” \\

About 70 percent of China’s pigs are raised by small farmers, and mortality rates are high. In the town of Jiaxing alone nearly 750,000 pigs die of disease every year, estimates Mr. Lin. By law, these carcasses should be either buried or cremated, but the temptation to bypass the law by selling or dumping them is strong for small farmers who are working to tight profit margins. \\

“For a start, says Lin, “these individual farmers have little sensitivity to official regulations.” At the same time, Mr. Feng points out, digging deep burial holes is tiresome “and lots of farmers don’t have enough land to dig holes anyway.” Cremation, meanwhile, is expensive and not always feasible. In Jiaxing, for example, all the cremation centers were reported to have been working at full capacity following a cold spell that killed an unusual number of piglets. \\

“And though the Ministry of Agriculture regulations set generous rates of compensation for cremated animals, “in real life the money takes a long time to come through if it ever comes at all,” says Feng, “because nobody ensures that the law is enforced.” The result, he adds, is that farmers often do not bother to take their carcasses for official cremation.Though the rules on how dead animals should be disposed of are strict, agrees Lin, incidents such as the recent appearance of thousands of pigs in the Huangpu reveal official incompetence. “The local authorities are meant to know how many pigs are being reared in their district and how many have died, but they are not saying anything because they do not want to take responsibility” for the scandal, says Lin. “They did not do their job properly.” \\

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 ; 7, 8) University of Washington; 9) Julie Chao

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.

Last updated January 2013

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