BEIJING, May 23 (Reuters) - China imported 136,517 tonnes of pork in April, up 24% from the same month a year earlier, customs data showed on Thursday, as the world’s top consumer of the meat stocked up on supplies amid concerns of a looming shortage.
This marked the biggest monthly volume since September 2016, when pork imports topped 140,000 tonnes. The have only come close to such a high level once since then when, hitting 135,900 tonnes in March 2018.
The data from the General Administration of Customs only covers “muscle cuts”, or pork meat, and not feet, heads and other offal that China also imports in large volumes.
China has imported 470,776 tonnes of pork in the first four months of 2019, up 8.4% compared with last year, the data showed.
The surge in imports follows the spread of the African swine fever virus to every province on the Chinese mainland since August last year, reducing the national herd by up to 200 million animals, according to one estimate.
With domestic pork production expected to be down by at least 30 percent in 2019, importers began buying up supplies from abroad earlier this year.
Some food processors are also stepping up imports to guarantee their packaged and frozen products do not contain the African swine fever virus, as the government increases checks on processors and restaurants.
Importers have even sourced meat from the United States, despite steep duties on U.S. pork because of the trade war. Some of those orders, however, have since been cancelled.
Big exporters say they are seeing a significant increase in Chinese demand for meat, not only cheaper items like offal.
“It’s not only offal like other years, also meat,” said Emmanuel Dartois, managing director of China for Cooperl, France’s top pork producer.
The company expects to sell about 50,000 tonnes of pork to China this year, Dartois told Reuters last week, up about 20 percent from 2018, as some Chinese plants struggle to source enough hogs.
Major British pork producer Cranswick said on Monday that comparable annual export volumes to its core eastern markets jumped 16%, as it benefited from higher prices after the spread of African swine fever.
Cranswick said the impact of African swine fever on China and surrounding countries could last more than three years.
“It’s not at all the same situation as last year. The power is going to move to the producer who can provide fresh pork,” said Cooperl’s Dartois.
Reporting by Dominique Patton; Editing by Tom Hogue