Canada has overtaken the United States as the top North American supplier of pork to China as farmers and meat packers in both nations battle for lucrative shares of the biggest global market.
Canada’s pork sales to China, after a sharp rise last year, exceeded those of the United States in the first quarter of 2017.
That’s only happened a handful of times in two decades, according to US and Canadian government data.
Rising affluence is driving China’s voracious appetite for pork, including parts of the pig —feet, elbows, innard-which command little value in most countries.
At the same time, tightened environmental standards in China have forced farm closures and boosted demand for cheaper imports.
That’s a bonanza for Canadian farmers, who have almost completely removed the growth drug ractopamine from their pigs’ diet, largely because it is banned in China, which consumes half the world’s pork.
US exports to China, by contrast, are limited because only about half of the nation’s herd has been weaned off the drug, according to US hog producers, meat packers and animal feed dealers.
But major US-based firms are now moving to produce more ractopamine-free hogs, including the three biggest pork producers, Smithfield Foods; Seaboard Foods, a division of Seaboard Corp; and Triumph Foods, a hog farmer cooperative.
The ascension of Canada’s pork exports underscores the power of the gargantuan Chinese market to influence agricultural practices and profits in supplier countries worldwide.
As recently as 2013, annual US pork sales to China, some 333,000 tonnes, more than doubled Canada’s shipments of 161,000 tonnes.
That is the same year Canada’s hog industry started to remove ractopamine, best known as Eli Lilly & Co product Paylean.
In the first quarter of this year, Canada shipped nearly 93,000 tonnes of pork to China, on pace to hit 372,000 tonnes annually. That eclipsed the 87,500 tonnes that the United States shipped, according to data from both governments.
The European Union, which has long banned ractopamine, is China’s top foreign pork supplier, sending 393,365 tonnes there in the first quarter.
Chinese authorities banned the use of ractopamine in livestock in 2002. They say meat raised with the drug can cause nausea and diarrhea in people and be life-threatening to sufferers of heart disease.
The US Food and Drug Administration, however, did not see the same dangers when it approved ractopamine in 1999, concluding that it would “not have a significant impact on the human environment.”
The China market is so lucrative that Canada’s HyLife started selling pork online directly to Chinese consumers last year.
Rising Chinese pork demand has driven up prices for by-products including pigs’ feet, kidneys and livers.
China is the biggest byproduct market, followed by Taiwan and Philippines.
In all, China consumed 55 million tonnes of pork last year. Although that is the lowest total in four years, imports are rising fast because millions of China’s small-scale farmers have left the pork business in recent years because of falling prices and rising environmental standards.