What started with a few dozen dead pigs in northeastern China is sending shock waves through the global food chain. Last August, a farm with fewer than 400 hogs on the outskirts of Shenyang was found to harbor African swine fever, the first ever occurrence of the contagious viral disease in the country with half the world’s pigs. Forty-seven head had died, triggering emergency measures including mass culling and a blockade to stop the transportation of livestock. Within days, a government notice proclaimed the outbreak “effectively controlled.”
It was too late. By then, the disease had literally gone viral, dispersed across hundreds of miles in sickened animals, contaminated food, and in dirt and dust on truck tires and clothing. Nine months later, the contagion has spread nationwide, crossed borders to Mongolia, Vietnam and Cambodia, and bolstered meat markets globally.While official estimates count 1 million culled hogs, slaughter data suggest 100 times more will be removed from China’s 440 million-strong swine herd in 2019, the Chinese zodiac’s “year of the pig.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast in April a decline of 134 million head — equivalent to the entire annual output of American pigs — and the worst slump since the department began counting China’s pigs in the mid 1970s.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” said Arlan Suderman, chief economist for INTL FCStone Inc., who has been analyzing commodity markets for almost four decades. “This will impact food prices globally.”
The strain of African swine fever spreading in Asia is undeniably nasty, killing virtually every pig it infects by a hemorrhagic illness reminiscent of Ebola in humans. It’s not known to sicken people, however.
The harm to pigs is especially critical for China, with a $128 billion pork industry and the world’s third-highest per-capita consumption.
China’s hog herd may decline as much as 30 percent, said Juan R. Luciano, chief executive officer of Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., one of the biggest agricultural commodity traders.
“China will clearly need to import substantial amounts of pork and likely other meat and poultry to satisfy demand,” Luciano told analysts on an April 26 conference call. Chinese meat purchases may also boost sales of soybean meal, a source of livestock feed, in North America, Brazil, and Europe, he said.
Wholesale pork prices in China are already 21 percent higher than a year ago, and have risen in the U.S. and EU after processors sent more of their product to China. The price of bacon in Spain jumped about 20 percent during March, while pork shoulders climbed 17 percent in Germany, according to Interporc, a Madrid-based industry group.