China says it already bought 700,000 tonnes of U.S. pork, data shows smaller sales

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese firms have already purchased 700,000 tonnes of pork and 700,000 tonnes of sorghum from the United States this year to meet market demand, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday, although U.S. government data pointed to smaller pork sales.

FILE PHOTO: A staff member lifts a pork slice with tongs at a supermarket in Handan, Hebei province, China June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

China, the world’s top agriculture market, has also bought 320,000 tonnes of cotton, 230,000 tonnes of wheat and 20 million tonnes of soybeans from the United States, spokesman Geng Shuang said at a daily press briefing.

China’s purchases of American farm goods have been one of U.S. President Donald Trump’s key demands to resolve a months-long trade war between the two nations. African swine fever, meanwhile, has killed millions of Chinese pigs, encouraging purchases of U.S. pork despite hefty tariffs in recent months.

Trump said on Friday that China had agreed to purchase $40 billion to $50 billion worth of U.S. agricultural goods in a first phase of an agreement to end the trade war.

U.S. sorghum exports to China totaled 628,075 tonnes from January to August while pork exports stood at 294,453 tonnes over that time, U.S. Census Bureau trade data showed.

Weekly U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) export sales data indicates more recent buying has lifted China’s pork purchase total to around 300,000 tonnes for shipment this year and about 135,000 tonnes for delivery in 2020.

The divergent data from China and the United States added to confusion in the U.S. livestock market over whether closely followed weekly U.S. export sales data includes hog carcasses, which are preferred by Chinese importers over other cuts.

“There’s been a lot of confusion out there about whether carcasses are covered or are not covered,” a USDA official who was not authorized to speak to the press told Reuters on the sidelines of a USDA data users meeting in Washington on Tuesday.

“What’s covered is muscle cuts. Whether people interpret that as including carcasses or not is a question that’s out there that we want to clarify,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

The USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service declined to comment about recent pork sales to China and did not respond to emailed questions about the discrepancy between U.S. and Chinese data. The agency has previously said it plans to publish a notification clarifying reporting requirements for pork exports soon.

Chinese importers made a record large weekly purchase of American pork last week, ahead of the trade talks, including 18,810 tonnes for shipment this year and 123,362 tonnes for shipment in 2020, according to USDA data.

China's pork imports CNC-PORK-IMP from all origins for the first nine months of the year were 1.33 million tonnes, up 43.6% from the same period a year earlier, Chinese customs data showed on Monday.

USDA also confirmed a net 1.18 million tonnes in soybean sales to China in the week ended Oct. 3, though no new sales have been announced in the days following trade talks that ended on Friday.

Purchases booked by Chinese firms may not all get shipped, one analyst cautioned.

“Not all of the pork would be delivered to China this year and it is likely that some of the booking gets canceled later,” said Jim Huang, chief executive of China-America Commodity Data Analytics, an independent agriculture consultancy.

Reporting by Cate Cadell and Hallie Gu in Beijing, Karl Plume in Chicago and Tom Polansek in Washington; editing by Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker