U.S. frozen pork supplies shrink to nine-year low in July

FILE PHOTO: The closed Smithfield Foods pork plant is seen as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continued, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, U.S., April 16, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. frozen pork inventories fell in July to the lowest level for any month in nine years, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Monday, even after meatpacking plants shut by COVID-19 came back online.

The data coincided with China reporting a record volume of pork imports in July after an outbreak of African swine fever reduced its domestic supplies.

As of the end of July, 458.902 million pounds of pork, including ribs, loins and hams, were in U.S. cold-storage facilities, down from 460.173 million in June and 611.692 million a year earlier, the USDA said in a monthly report. It was the lowest end-of-month inventory since July 2011.

The cold storage report showed trends that were in line with previous years, with pork in high demand due to summertime grilling, but the production slowdowns earlier this year had left supplies lower than usual to start the season.

“At this point, we are still playing from behind,” said Matthew Wiegand, commodity broker for FuturesOne. “It will take some time for a lot of your different cuts, especially with the elevated export pace that we have seen.”

Supplies of pork bellies used to make bacon fell 20%, to 42.352 million pounds at the end of July from 52.647 million pounds a year earlier.

U.S. meat processors came under fire for increasing exports to China after warning of domestic shortages in April, when they started to shut plants as workers contracted the coronavirus.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced an executive order on April 28 to keep meat plants operating during the pandemic, though plants have since struggled with high absenteeism.

USDA data showed 45,132 tonnes of fresh, chilled or frozen pork muscle cuts were exported to China between July 3 and July 28. Chinese data showed the country imported 430,000 tonnes of pork in July from all destinations.

Reporting by Karl Plume and Mark Weinraub in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis