PRIME pig prices are slowly but surely heading north after several months in the doldrums, with latest figures showing the EU-spec rising a modest 0.15p to stand at 146.07p/kg ­- the largest week-on-week price rise since July, when prices were almost 19p higher.

However, this latest figure remains 3.74p behind year earlier levels, as prices increased by the same amount in the equivalent week last year.

Even though prices rose somewhat, supplies continued to be ample. Estimated slaughterings stood at 185,800 head, which was a substantial 13% higher than year earlier levels and 5% higher than the previous week.

And, compared to the previous week, average carcase weights were 210g lower at 84.31kg, which would have partially counteracted the increased throughputs. But, compared to year earlier levels, weights were still 240g higher.

Prices on the continent have started to turn upwards in the past two weeks too, meaning the gap between the UK and EU price has narrowed, which in turn has likely alleviated the downwards pressure on UK pig prices.

Some reports also suggest demand for pig meat on the continent has picked up in recent weeks, but it remains to be seen how much EU pig prices might climb. In the week ended February 10, the EU-spec APP averaged 149.21p/kg, 0.68p less than in the previous week. With the decline in SPP outpacing that for the APP during the week, the gap between the two price series widened to 3.29p.

Weaner prices slipped on the week however, with those in the 7kg bracket falling £1.68 on the week to level at £36.45 per head, which is down £1.78 on the year.

On a more positive note, latest statistics from Eurostat indicate that EU fresh/frozen pork exports returned to growth in December, gaining 9% on year earlier levels to reach 181,900 tonnes.

Overall shipments in 2017 were nevertheless 9% lower than the previous year, at just under 2.1m tonnes due to reduced demand from the Chinese, with shipments to China declining by more than a quarter for the year as a whole. This decline was partially countered by increasing exports to alternative markets, to include the US and to a lesser extent Japan and the Philippines. Increased shipments of frozen bellies were key to driving growth in exports to the US last year, reflecting strong demand for this cut there.

The good news is, exports to China returned to growth in the final quarter of the year with a 7% year-on-year increase in these shipments during December being the main contributor to the return to overall expansion during the month. This was also supported by continuing strong growth in shipments to the US and Philippines, as well as Hong Kong.

Offal exports in 2017 slipped 6% on the year to 1.3m tonnes. Again, higher unit prices meant the decline in value terms was smaller (-3%), falling to €1.7bn. In contrast to fresh/frozen pork, shipments did not return to growth in December.

China continued to receive over half of the total export volume, but shipments were down 15% year-on-year. However, as for pork, the Philippines proved to be a strong growth market. Notably higher volumes were also shipped to South Korea last year.