Globe

China's taste for pork continues to grow

December 09, 2012

TOMOYOSHI ISOGAWA/ Senior Staff Writer

China is already home to half of all the world's pigs, and still consumers crave more pork.

I drove past farmhouses with corn lying on the ground under the eaves to dry. We arrived at a particular pig farm, one known for its gourmet product.

The farm, around 100 kilometers west of Qingdao City in China's Shandong province, is operated by a company called Qingdao Licha Black Pig Breeding Base. Its product: the premium-brand "licha" black pig.

The 7-hectare farm houses 5,000 pigs, tended by a staff of around 50. Everywhere on the farm, the air is filled with the sound of squealing.

Adjacent to an office are pens where the breeding swine live in isolation to prevent fighting and injuries. The largest breeding swine weigh in at an intimidating 350 kilograms.

Pigs raised for slaughter are kept in large communal enclosures, often dozens at a time. When farm manager Zhongxiao Zhang takes a pumpkin grown nearby and hurls it into a pen, young pigs gather round it while others come charging from far away. They press in, head to head, as they gorge on the vegetable.

Licha black pigs have inhabited in that area for centuries. Since the 1990s, farms around the country have been increasingly using chemical additives to make pigs grow faster. That has endangered time-consuming natural breeding methods and has put licha black pigs on the brink of extinction. Now, consumers have begun to demand safe, quality pork regardless of price, and there is a chance the breed may survive.

Most pork costs 2.8 yuan (36 yen, or $0.43) per 100 grams, whereas licha black pork sells for 12 yuan. Despite its high price, Licha is a popular brand due to its natural image.

When Qingdao Licha Black Pig Breeding Base was founded in 2007, it had only a hundred pigs or so. Now it has around 40 times that number. "It has taken us five years to get to this position. That's on the slow side," says Chang. Breeding licha black pigs has always been time-consuming. But that helps the brand's reputation.

There are nearly 700 million pigs in China, comprising over half the world's pig population and half of global production and consumption of pork products. Of the 79.26 million tons of meat products produced in China in 2010, pork accounted for 64 percent. Poultry came in second with 21 percent, while beef and mutton only added up to 8 and 5 percent, respectively. China predominantly raises and eats pork.

But this pork powerhouse is approaching a turning point. More companies are emerging, due to the evolution of farming from smallholders to large-scale enterprises. Small farms are increasingly unable to cover production costs, and the government is eager to promote modernization.

Authorities in China feel responsible for maintaining sufficient supply of pork, and keeping the price stable despite increasing demand. A rapid rise in price could spark social unrest. By subsidizing pig farms of a certain size and promoting branded meats, the government hopes to achieve a modern style of production. Licha black pork could be said to be a product of the times.

I went to see the traditional "backyard pig breeding" method of farming, which is disappearing. An hour and a half from central Beijing, after driving along misty country roads lined with poplars, I entered a village of brick farmhouses. In the backyard of one, pigs were being raised on a narrow patch of land measuring 15 square meters. Two sows lived in a stone-walled enclosure, while an adjacent pen housed eight piglets. "15 were born; I sold seven, and I'm raising the rest," explained a cheerful woman in her 50s.

A man of a similar age who lives nearby said he had raised pigs once, but has now given up on it. So had others: It had become a money-losing endeavor. A pig raised over the course of half a year sells for 200 yuan (2,600 yen, or $31). If a sow gives birth to 10 piglets, that represents a 2,000 yuan income. However, large companies offer starting wages of around 3,000 yuan per month. The money earned from raising 10 pigs over six months does not even match the monthly pay for a new company recruit.

To make matters worse, the price of corn, the standard feed for pig farms, continues to rise. It all adds up to a simple truth: it is better to leave and find work in the city.

One farm in the village here has 2,000 pigs. When I peered inside the sow house, day-old piglets were suckling at their mothers' teats. The farmer had commenced large-scale production after receiving a large investment from a relative. This village, too, is in transition as its farms expand.

Swelling demand from consumers has led to an increase in imported pork. In 2011, imports amounted to approximately 500,000 tons of pork, accounting for around 1 percent of total consumption. As exports of processed pork products grow too, the total supply is not enough to meet the appetites of China's 1.3 billion people. Even having half the world's pigs is insufficient.

Imports of pig feed precede those of pork. China has extensive highlands and deserts, which are unsuitable for cultivation, and therefore arable land is surprisingly limited.

"Nine percent of the world's arable land is feeding around 21 percent of the world's population, and self-sufficiency of staple foods such as rice and wheat is given priority," says Wei Ruan, head researcher for the Norinchukin Research Institute. "The supply of soy beans used in pig feed is dependent on imports, and imports of corn are gradually increasing too. When corn is expensive, it becomes cheaper to import pork than to breed pigs, so pork imports are also on the rise."

In 2011, Mexico and some countries in Northern Europe made successive attempts to sell pork to China after the news that China had purchased a massive quantity of pork from the United States. The world's livestock-producing nations are moving to ramp up production of pork--with China in mind.

PREMIUM PRODUCT

I visited my friend Weiqi Liu, 56, a former office worker who lives in Beijing's university district. I asked him to describe Chinese home cooking. By way of response, he and his wife, 52-year-old Fenglan Zhang, an adviser to an IT company, prepared a meal for me. Their combined monthly income exceeds 10,000 yuan, which places them in China's upper-middle class.

From the kitchen I heard sizzling and saw occasional flames as they took turns of using a wok to prepare 10 different recipes. They added some pre-prepared cold items, and placed a dozen tantalizing dishes on the dinner table.

There were four kinds of pork-based dishes, including "quingjiao rousi;" two varieties each of chicken, beef, and vegetable dishes; one mutton dish; and "jiachangbing," doughy flatbreads like thick crepes. All were favorite foods for the couple, and are eaten regularly.

The pair live alone. On weekends, when their son and his wife come to visit, they make four or five dishes. On this day, they kindly prepared double that amount especially for me.

Their refrigerator contained a considerable amount of pork. At their local supermarket, pork costs 3.2 yuan (around 42 yen) per 100 grams, while beef sells for 9 yuan, chicken between 1.6 and 2 yuan, and mutton for 7 yuan.

Chinese Internet company Baidu once revealed the most searched-for foods over the course of the year. The top 10 included five dishes containing pork: "tangcu paigu" (sweet and sour pork ribs), "yuxiang rousi" (Sichuan-style stir-fired pork strips), "hong shao rou" (pork belly braised in soy sauce), "hui guo rou," and "mapo doufu." Two chicken dishes also made the cut, but there were none with beef or mutton. Pork was the clear winner.

"It must be Chinese tradition," says Liu. "I think we love the taste of pork." He and his wife sometimes make do with frozen dumplings for dinner on weeknights, but the dumplings are always filled with pork.

Until the mid-1970s, amid continued political instability, the average Chinese citizen seldom had the chance to eat meat. After the country's reform and liberalization, economic development lifted living standards and meat consumption rose. The amount eaten per capita is less in China than in Europe and the United States, but it still adds up to a massive amount when measuring overall consumption.

Meanwhile, this pork-loving society is showing a new phenomenon, too: Consumption of expensive beef has hit a plateau nationwide, but in Beijing, more and more barbeque beef restaurants are opening. At present, there are thought to be as many as 300. People with money to spare are celebrating special days by feasting on premium meat.

This year alone, many Japanese-style barbeque beef restaurants have opened in Beijing. "Barbeque beef in China is at the developmental stage," says Tomoyo Aizawa, 36, proprietor of one which offers beef from nations such as China, Japan and other countries. Aizawa has lived in Beijing since 2004. "Back then, Chinese beef was mealy. Nowadays, quality beef is emerging. Livestock breeding methods seem to have improved with the introduction of Japanese techniques."

TOMOYOSHI ISOGAWA/ Senior Staff Writer
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Black pigs bred at a farm on the outskirts of Qingdao. (Photo: Tomoyoshi Isogawa)

Black pigs bred at a farm on the outskirts of Qingdao. (Photo: Tomoyoshi Isogawa)

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  • Black pigs bred at a farm on the outskirts of Qingdao. (Photo: Tomoyoshi Isogawa)
  • A home-cooked meal at the home of a former office worker in Beijing. (Photo: Tomoyoshi Isogawa)
  • (Photo: Hiroyuki Kodera)

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