China's coronavirus clampdown pushes pork prices toward record

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s pork prices are hovering near last year’s record after measures to battle a coronavirus epidemic hit transport of pigs and delayed the restart of slaughtering plants, crimping already tight supplies of the meat.

FILE PHOTO: A staff member wearing a face mask selects pork meat for online orders at a's 7Fresh chain, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Yizhuang of Beijing, China February 8, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/File Photo

The virus epidemic, which has killed more than 1,000 people and infected more than 40,000, prompted many provinces to extend the Lunar New Year holiday by at least a week and clamp down on the movement of people in many regions.

“With restrictions on road transport, purchasing hogs is quite difficult,” said Zhao Yuelei, an analyst with agriculture consultancy Cofeed.

“Live hog stocks in the market remain low, which pushes up hog prices.”

Average pork prices reached 51.21 yuan ($7.34) a kg on Tuesday, up from 48 yuan before the holiday, and close to last October’s record of 54 yuan, data from Cofeed showed.

The figure contrasts with the fall in prices normally seen after the holiday period’s strong demand.

Roadblocks and transport curbs have held up the movement of pigs to slaughter-houses, while a lockdown on many cities and counties has left too few staff to operate them.

The disease prevention and control measures remain in place despite calls by the agriculture and rural affairs ministry for food production to get priority, Zhao added.

Several slaughterhouses run by one of China’s top pork producers, C.P. Pokphand Co Ltd, only reopened this week, said Chief Executive Bai Shanlin.

Two weeks in quarantine faces workers returning from virus-hit areas before they can resume work, he added.

The logistics and labor issues compound a shortage caused by an epidemic of deadly African swine fever that reduced China’s huge pig herd more than 40% last year.

Demand for the staple meat appears to have been little affected by the current curbs, said Bai and others.

“Pork consumption remains strong despite the coronavirus outbreak,” Xiong Kuan, an analyst at COFCO Futures, said in a note on Tuesday.

Bai said that C.P., which slaughters about 350,000 pigs a month, still expected to increase production this year.

“In our case, most operations are now normal,” he added.

But others have warned the curbs could delay recovery of the herd in the medium and long term.

“Production recovery is not promising,” said Xiong.

“Sale orders of piglets and sows has been delayed by a month and even longer in many regions,” he said, adding that supplies would reflect the impact in the second half of the year.

Productivity of sows has fallen, after large losses in the sow herd forced the industry to use female pigs normally destined for meat in breeding activities.

Restocking of farms has been slower than expected and construction of new ones has also been hit, Xiong said, echoing comments on Sunday by an agriculture official.

Reporting by Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu; Editing by Clarence Fernandez