CHINA’S culling programme aimed at stopping the spread of a massive outbreak of African Swine Fever, will have repercussions for the pig industry across the world for many years.

That’s the opinion of Andy McGowan, who is chief executive of Scottish Pig Producers, but he adds that filling the gap created by the destruction of so many pigs in Asia, has not yet filtered down to a price rise in the UK, as it has done in other big players in the pig market, like the US.

By the end of 2020, China’s pig herd will slump to 275m head – which is down almost 40% since the beginning of 2018 before the world’s largest animal disease outbreak began. This has already had a huge impact on pork prices worldwide and pig-meat is poised for its steepest annual increase since mad cow disease and bird flu outbreaks in 2004, 15 years ago.

The pork wholesale spot price jumped 16% in China in one week (to October 11). In all, prices have doubled since it reported its first African pig fever cases in the middle of 2018.

Across Europe, pork prices are at a six-year high and there is no sign of that changing as China is signing import deals around the world to satisfy its seemingly insatiable appetite. More than two-thirds of protein consumption in China is in the form of pork.

However, the UK is struggling to keep up with the general trend on global pigmeat. In the week ending November 2, the UK-spec’ standard pig price (SPP) rose, but that was just more than counteracting the slight decline of the previous week. All weight bands recorded price increases, ranging from just under 0.5p to just over 1p.

Estimated slaughter numbers were similar to recent weeks, but a little higher than last year. Within this, though, there were 25% fewer heavy pigs (100kg and over) slaughtered and this meant that the average carcase weight fell by more than 0.5kg on the week, to average 85.98kg/head.

In contrast to the SPP, in the week ended October 26, the UK-spec’ all pigs price (APP) rose slightly. This increased the gap between the two series to 2.07p per kg.

So, despite the fact that China is scrabbling about trying to fulfill its demand, prices here have not yet reflected this. In fact, domestic trade remains very poor and in line with the difficult red meat market generally.

“The challenge for the UK is that the domestic market was not great before the crisis, and that processors and butcheries were already finding sales difficult when set against the costs they have.

“Without the ‘China effect’, pig prices could well be down 20/30p per kg at the moment. If pig prices go up too quickly as a result of the troubles in Asia, then processors will struggle to get that from consumers in the current economic climate so that could just result in a reduction in sales volumes,” said Mr McGowan.

“ASF has created a ‘black hole’ sucking in the world’s pork and it is set to keep doing so do so for the foreseeable future,” added Mr McGowan. “In the long-term, however, Asia will likely sort itself out and we may then have an over supply of pork – so we need planned, market-led growth so that the financial benefits of the next few years are not subsequently lost.

“The biggest issue now for the UK is to ensure there is no ASF outbreak here, as we would lose our export status overnight. We have to secure high security at borders to minimise the risk of any products being brought back into the UK. The disease can be transmitted through meat products as well, so consumers need to be careful what they are bringing back into the UK. In fact, just don’t bring any meat in at all,” added Mr McGowan.

But, pressure must come on the home market, even if it is because of exports from other EU countries being sucked in to Asia. China has been buying more pig meat and imported more than 1.3m tonnes of pork in the first nine months of 2019 – that’s 44% more than a year ago, according to Chinese customs data. Imports of beef were also up more than 50%, as consumers substituted that for pork.

One huge question mark remains, though. A lot depends on how China and US relationships ‘warm’ following a very public trade spat. Before the trade war began, China was one of the biggest markets for US agricultural exports, with pork being a huge part of that. Even with a 70% tarriff in place, the US is now exporting record volumes of pork to China.

Although this disease does not harm humans if the meat is cooked properly, when pigs get it, it is terminal. The mortality rate is brutal and there has been no vaccine developed, mainly because many in the vet-med trade did not think that African swine fever was too big a threat. They might have a different view now.

Australia recently impounded 32,000 items being brought back there, with half of the items testing positive for ASF, something the UK must be vigilant against. “Industry and the general public need to be clear about the devastating impact even one single case of ASF would have on our pig farmers – don’t bring in meat products and do not feed pigs with kitchen scraps,” pointed out Mr McGowan.