Hogs go upmarket as tastes change

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2012, 12:00am


Being able to afford pork was once a symbol of wealth for Chinese.

Today, the mainland produces half of the world's pork and because pork prices weigh so heavily on the nation's inflation data, some internet commenters even refer to the CPI as the 'China Pig Index'.

Steadily growing demand for the meat and widespread concerns for food safety across the mainland has attracted more investors to dabble in the pig-raising industry in recent years, among other agriculture-related sectors. The best-known example may be the plan by Chinese internet company NetEase to run its own pig farm in order to produce 'safe, delicious' pork.

More than two years after company founder Ding Lei announced the plan in 2009, NetEase recently released the design of its pig farm, which it started building in the mountains of Anji , Zhejiang, in March.

Bai Lei, director of marketing for NetEase's agriculture department, said the decision to locate the farm in the mountains was made because the area has an advantage in terms of epidemic prevention - the company had promised to not medicate pigs.

The farm, covering about 80 hectares of mountain land, features more than 30 buildings, including offices, feed-storage facilities and pigsties, which will house around 100,000 pigs when the farm is operational, Bai said, without giving a starting date.

'To protect the local ecology, we haven't ruined the vegetation or altered the original terrain,' he said, 'so not all of the 80 hectares of land is used. We used just a small portion of it to construct buildings'.

The pigs will live in overhead structures built on stilts in order to keep vegetation where it is.

Unlike traditional pigsties, which are dirty and crowded, the NetEase pig farm will provide an average of two square metres of space for each pig, it said, adding that these measures provide a safer environment for the pigs so they are kept healthy enough to not need medication.

Ding's motivation to raise pigs reportedly came as a way to provide safe meat after a hotpot restaurant served him pig-blood pudding that he believed to be unsafe. He told the Nanfang Daily in a report early last year that the mainland's breeding industry used 97,000 tonnes of antibiotics in 2010. 'Can you imagine how many antibiotics each chicken and pig has eaten?' he said.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the mainland produced more than 50 million tonnes of pork in 2010, accounting for 64 per cent of all the meat it produced.

Li Shuilong, head of the China Meat Association, said in November that the massive figure accounted for 49 per cent of the world's pork production that year.

NetEase has not said how it will price its pigs, but Bai said the prices would definitely be high enough to ensure profits.

'Because our initial plan was to extend [the pig farm gradually], we would definitely need profits to make this happen,' Bai said, adding that a detailed pricing scheme would be released when the time is right.

He Zhonghua, an analyst from Chinameat.cn, a website under the China Meat Association, said NetEase's way of raising pigs was not worth expanding.

'The market for high-end pork is limited, and this makes it hard to enlarge its production,' he warned, adding that many businesses in the meat industry had tried to be different in management, but none of them had achieved large outputs.

'Besides, it's basically impossible to always keep domestic animals away from illnesses,' he said. 'One has to consider everything in the raising process, from the selection of species to the feed, which might contain residual pesticide.'

He believed that the solution to providing safe pork was the replacement of individual pig farmers by large corporate pig farms. 'When the number of pigs raised on a farm is big, the potential profits are higher, and the owner won't bother taking the risk of using 'lean meat powder' to lower the pigs' fat content,' he said.