China’s struggle with ASF variants may hike pork imports

New variants of the African swine fever virus are causing a second wave of disease this winter in China.  | Reuters photo

Canada posted a record for pork exports in 2020, and as new variants of African swine fever spread in China and elsewhere in Asia there is a good chance off-shore pork movement could again be strong in 2021.

Canada exported $5.09 billion of pork in 2020, up 20 percent from the $4.25 billion exported in 2019.

The largest buyer was China, taking $1.64 billion, a 170 percent increase over the previous year.

Japan was the second largest buyer at $1.44 billion, up 2.6 percent over the year before and the United States at $1.26 billion, up about one percent.

The spectacular sales to China were caused by China’s battle with ASF, a struggle that forced it to cull 40 to 50 percent of its herd, the largest in the world.

China made enormous efforts to control the disease and rebuild its herd and officials at the end of 2020 were trumpeting that the herd was back to 90 percent of its normal size.

However, it looks like they are not done with the disease just yet.

All viruses mutate over time and that is the case with ASF.

The situation is similar to what is happening with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus virus that causes COVID-19, which has developed new variants now dominant in Britain and South Africa.

Surveillance of ASF in China shows several new virus variants. Some are as lethal as the original, but others appear to be less serious but more transmissible.

The variants are harder to detect, making it difficult to do rapid diagnosis and culling of infected animals, which is the only way to control the disease because there is yet no approved vaccine.

These variants are causing a second wave of disease this winter.

The Australian Broadcasting Network rural issues show Landline last week quoted Simon Quilty, an independent meat analyst, saying that in the last six to eight weeks the new strains of the virus caused seven to eight million sows to be culled. That would amount to 15 to 20 percent of China’s sow herd.

To give context, Canada’s sow and gilt herd on Jan. 1 was 1.24 million head.

ASF is not the only factor contributing to the heavy sow slaughter. Bloomberg quotes experts saying that about 15 percent of China’s herd might have been lost over the winter.

It notes that the winter was harsh in some areas and foot-and-mouth disease and porcine epidemic diarrhea have taken a toll.

Also, the effort to rapidly rebuild the herd after the first ASF wave caused producers to put regular females into the breeding herd because of a shortage of high productivity, cross-bred F1 sows. This has lessened the productivity of the herd and increased the number of weaker piglets at birth.

The immediate culling of swine to control this second wave could raise the amount of pork available to China’s food retailers. This is what happened in the early days of ASF there.

But later on, the smaller breeding herd led to fewer slaughter animals and pork shortages.

Canada’s monthly pork exports to China in 2020 saw high points in the spring, with $173 million in April, and again in October when $169 million moved, but then settled back.

Total pork exports in January slid to $355 million, down from $478 million in October. according to Statistics Canada.

Movement to China in January was $92 million or 26 percent of the total.

U.S. pork exports were also off in January, with the total value 15 percent less than the year before and the value of exports to China and Hong Kong down 41 percent.

But if China’s second ASF wave is a replay of its first wave, then its pork supply should tighten later in the year raising the possibility of strong pork imports again.

More recent American weekly trade figures give hope, showing late February pork exports regaining strength.

That would be good news for North American hog producers who suffered low prices in 2020 because of COVID-19 disruptions to slaughter house operations.

When plants closed because of high infection rates among workers, it reduced pork supply, lifting the price of the meat while the back-up in the slaughter pipeline led to surpluses of market-ready animals and lower hog prices.

COVID is not yet over — it recently closed the Olymel Alberta plant — but generally slaughter rates are improving in Canada and the U.S., helping to lift hog prices.

The March 4 Maple Leaf Signature 4 price was $182 per 100 kilograms, up about $45 from the weak level at the same point last year but also up about $35 from the five-year average for that point in the year.

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