Chinese Pinched by Rising Pork Prices

(Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

(Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

The porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) that was identified for the first time last May has spread to 27 states in the U.S. The disease has caused a sharp decline in pork supply from the 25 largest pork producers in the nation and triggered a rapid increase of pork prices. [Translator’s note: Pork is a major source of protein for the Chinese.] In Chinatown, restaurants and grocery stores are affected a lot by the hike. “This is the highest price in the past 20 years,” people in the pork business sighed.

Thinner profits

Many pork retailers and consumers in Chinatown have been feeling the pinch. The price of pork rose sharply especially after the New Year. Mr. Fong, who works for Deluxe Food Market on East Broadway, said the price of pork had been rising in recent years. But “it used to go up 10 to 20 cents once in a while. In the past two months, it has gone up much more sharply.”

For example, BBQ pork is now sold at $2.49 per pound, almost double its previous price. “It’s because the wholesale prices have gone up a lot. Still we try to keep the increase in the price of processed pork more modest to protect the customers,” Mr. Fong said.

Mr. Zhang, manager of the Center B Trading Inc., a meat wholesaler on Center Street, said this year pork prices have been rising more quickly than he expected. Mr. Zhang said prices of pork butts and spare ribs, two favorite products among Chinese, have gone up especially quickly in the past month. The former has jumped to $1.60-$1.70 per pound from $1.10 per pound, and the latter to $1.90 per pound from $1.40.

Mr. Zhang thought the price hike was triggered by the spread of PEDV in many inland states. He said 80 percent of the pork products of his company were from those affected states. “Many farm pigs died in the outbreak of PEDV,” he said. “The farmers have less pork to sell. We’ve already reduced our purchases by one-third. And we also get fewer orders from our clients. Now the prices are higher and the supply is inadequate. It has never happened to us before.”

Mr. Wang of Grand China Meat Market said the price hike has also taken a toll on consumers. He said the prices of BBQ pork and pork butts have gone up 50 cents per pound on average in the past month. Although it hasn’t affected the shop’s customer flow, people were buying less than before. “Those who in the past may buy two pounds at once only buy one pound now,” he said.

Ms. Deng who just bought some pork from New York Supermarket East Broadway said she also felt the price of pork has been rising quickly this year. “But we all love pork. So I still have to buy it. Maybe I’ll buy less pork and balance the diet with other meats instead,” she said.

Not only grocery stores are affected. Restaurants in Chinatown are also struggling. Big Wong King, a restaurant on Mott Street that sells BBQ pork, ribs and other pork dishes, is one. Mr. Tu, the owner of the restaurant, said the price of pork is now much higher, but the prices of their dishes remain the same.

This means their costs are higher and profits thinner. “We have to settle for less profit because if we raise the price, we may lose customers. We’ll try to maintain the prices as long as we can,” he said. Other restaurants like Canton Kitchen and Four Dishes Buffet are doing the same.

It May Last to the End of the Year 

What caused the price hike? Steve Meyer, president of Paragon Economics, confirmed the guess of Mr. Zhang, the manager of  Center B Trading Inc. He said higher pork prices were mainly due to PEDV. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the epidemic has spread to 27 states. Major pork producing states such as Iowa, North Carolina and Minnesota are the ones that reported the most cases. And most pork products on the market in Chinatown are from those states. The reduction of pork production triggered a butterfly effect, which pushed up the prices.

PEDV posts no risk to human health or food safety. But it sharply reduces the production of pork. A virus that may appear to be the same as the transmissible gastroenteritis (TGE) virus can cause acute diarrhea in pigs of all ages. And it is fatal to nearly 100 percent of infected piglets less than two weeks old.

Meyer said in the past few months more than five million piglets have died from the disease nationwide, including 1.3 million in January. He said such a high number of piglet deaths has led to the reduction of pork production and will eventually affect consumers.

Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian of the National Pork Producers Council, said there is no effective vaccine against the virus and it may take a few more months for researchers to produce one.

Meyer said pork production could be further reduced in the summer. So many retailers have started to increase their stock for the future. This may cause prices to go up even more.

To prevent PEDV from spreading and to limit its impact on the entire pork industry, the National Pork Board announced its strategy this week. It plans to provide $650,000 to related scientific research and educational programs. The nonprofit Genome Alberta will also provide $500,000 for research.

Normally pigs are infected through polluted feces, which normally spread via the bodies of pigs, farm trucks, shoes and clothes. So pork producers have started to adopt stricter hygienic protocols to prevent the disease.

As for the struggles of the groceries and restaurants in Chinatown, because of higher costs and lower profits, Meyer said there is no better solution. “Their costs will increase more in the near future. They may soon have no choice but to transfer the cost to consumers. Maybe some people will still be able to afford pork and some will not,” he said.

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