Future of Asia

China: The Year of the Pig (Flu)

Pigs’ centrality to life in China is reflected in the Mandarin character for home which depicts a pig under a roof.

Credit: Creative Photo Corner Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Pork is the meat of choice in China and no meal is complete without it. It accounts for nearly three-quarters of Chinese meat consumption.
  • Pigs’ centrality to life in China is reflected in the Mandarin character for home which depicts a pig under a roof.
  • Pig rearing in China, despite large industrialized farms, remains a predominately small-scale affair.
  • If a single pig is found to test positive for the swine flu, the entire herd has to be slaughtered.
  • There are concerns that Chinese provincial governments are suppressing data and asking pork companies not to report new outbreaks.

This is anniversary year in China. Thirty years have passed since Tiananmen Square and 70 have gone since the People’s Republic was founded.

A century has elapsed since the Treaty of Versailles and the anger that it sparked resulting in the May Fourth protest movement for cleaner government and 125 years have passed since the outbreak of a calamitous war with Japan.

A sensitive time

But one anniversary looms that will be barely commented on even as its ramifications impact every Chinese household even today.

August will mark one year since the outbreak of African swine fever — or swine flu — that has decimated the country’s pig herd.

The pork industry is worth about $128 billion in China and the country’s 375 million pigs make up just under half the planet’s total.

The number of pigs China will fatten to prepare for slaughter and sale this year is predicted to fall by 20%, from 2018. This is the worst annual slump since the U.S. Department of Agriculture — interested in exports to China — began counting China’s pigs in the mid-1970s.

For its part, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs disclosed in a report that China had 375 million sows and piglets at the end of March, down from 428 million in December 2018.

The pig virus has not skipped to other species and doesn’t harm humans, at least not yet, even if they eat tainted pork. The virus for pigs, though, is fatal and spreads easily to other pigs.

No solution in sight

No vaccine can prevent infection, or treat it. If a single pig is found to test positive for the virus, the entire herd has to be slaughtered. Farmers usually suffer substantial financial losses in the process.

The virus spreads easily among the animals as it can be carried in clothing, infected blood, or fluids from urine, saliva or faeces, and on tires and shoes.

There are concerns that Chinese provincial governments are suppressing data and asking pork companies not to report new outbreaks.

A global story

The pig flu was first detected outside Africa in 1957, in Portugal, but never before has it spread so rapidly and been so damaging as it did in China now. All of the 33 provinces and regions in China have been affected.

Other countries are battling the outbreak. The disease has been found in Mongolia, Cambodia and North Korea. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization believes that cases reported by local governments are underestimates.

Farmers in China are suspected of selling infected meat rather than report outbreaks due to a lag in often inadequate compensation and being burdened by inspections.

Local government officials may also be reluctant to report outbreaks fearing it would reflect badly on them.

Playing games

This outbreak was first detected in China in August 2018 in Liaoning province in the northeast. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs immediately responded with emergency measures.

According to guidelines, all pigs in a three kilometer zone around an infected herd had to be killed. Roadblocks were meant to be set up and inspection and disinfection stations established within a 10-kilometer buffer zone. This was not strictly implemented.

Pork is king in China

Pork is the meat of choice in China and no meal is complete without it. Braised in sauce, as Mao Zedong demanded, in dumplings or just plainly fried or boiled, pork accounts for nearly three-quarters of Chinese meat consumption.

Pig rearing in China, despite large industrialized farms, remains a predominately small-scale affair. Pigs also provide cheap garbage disposal services.

They are fed left over scraps and provide manure and meat for the farm. Pigs’ centrality to life in China is reflected in the Mandarin character for home which depicts a pig under a roof.

The economic impact is being felt. China’s National Bureau of Statistics last week said that that the Consumer Price Index hit 2.7% in May, the highest level in more than a year. Overall food prices jumped by 7.7% last month, compared to the same period in 2018.

Conclusion

As the party celebrates seven decades in power in October, in banquet halls where pork will be served on tables illuminated by cut-glass chandeliers, their appetite may be diminished by the realization that surging food prices carry the risk of instability.

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About Tom Clifford

Tom Clifford is an Irish journalist, currently based in Beijing.

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