UPDATE 2-China's March meat imports surpass 1 mln T - customs

(Adds analyst comment)

BEIJING, April 13 (Reuters) - China imported 1.02 million tonnes of meat in March, customs data showed on Tuesday, the highest monthly volume since at least January 2020, as the world’s biggest meat buyer continued to stock up to fill shortages at home.

Imports rose 11.4% from 919,000 tonnes in March 2020, the data showed, even after local pork prices fell sharply since the start of the year. China’s General Administration of Customs started publishing data for combined meat imports last year.

It comes as China’s output of pork, its staple meat, continues to be affected by the deadly hog disease African swine fever, which reached the country in 2018.

The large volume is likely a record, according to Pan Chenjun, senior analyst at Rabobank, and reflects the market expectation of a substantial shortage of meat after renewed swine fever outbreaks over the winter.

“People also thought the pandemic was over, but it wasn’t,” she said, noting that demand has not been as strong as expected.

Market sentiment has changed since late March, said Pan.

A severe wave of infections in the first quarter wiped out at least 20% of the breeding herd in northern China, industry sources and analysts have told Reuters, causing some farmers to panic and slaughter smaller pigs.

Domestic pork prices PORK-CN-TOT-D have plunged more than 40% since the beginning of the year amid liquidation of stocks and weak demand.

Imports are set to remain high, however, with most people anticipating an ongoing supply shortage, added Pan.

Imports for the first three months of 2021 reached 2.63 million tonnes, up 20.8% versus the same period of last year, the data also showed. (Reporting by Dominique Patton; Editing by Jacqueline Wong, Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Shailesh Kuber)