Pig sector gets coronavirus chills as restaurant bookings dive

Coronavirus, swine fever tension sours pork's sweet spot

Agribusiness
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Tourists and locals are avoiding Asian restaurants, inadvertently spreading the impact of coronavirus to Australia's pork market.

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Australians don't have to go overseas to get a first hand feel for how infectious the coronavirus scare has become.

A visit to a capital city Chinese restaurant provides an eerie glimpse of the knock-on impact the disease is having on the Asian economy right here in Australia.

Not only has there been a crash in tourist traffic and Asian student numbers shopping and eating out in restaurants and noodle bars, the fear factor's knock-on effect has spread along the supply line to the pig market, too.

"It's been so quick. It's caught the industry by surprise," said Australian Pork Limited (APL) chief executive officer, Margo Andrae.

"There's suddenly a bit of a surplus of product in the market and prices are under pressure."

Pork is by far the most popular meat used in Asian cooking.

Asian migrant power

Normally the pig industry has considered itself fortunate to have its domestic demand partly underpinned by Australia's rising Asian migrant and temporary visitor numbers.

About 1.2m Australians have recent generation Chinese backgrounds, with about 40 per cent of residents born overseas originally from Asia.

We've been worried all the focus on coronavirus risk to humans may have diluted the level of attention authorities are paying to the swine fever threat to pigs and agriculture - Margot Andrae, Australian Pork Limited

Now, however, unease about the pervasive cost of coronavirus is coinciding with the pig industry's other disease red alert - the risk of African swine fever, which continues spreading globally and poses a big biosecurity danger to Australian pig herds from nearby Asia.

While coronavirus has dominated headlines since January, at the same time 10 overseas visitors to Australia have been refused entry and deported after airport inspections have found fresh pork products in their luggage.

"We've been worried all the focus on coronavirus risk to humans may have diluted the level of attention authorities are paying to the swine fever threat to pigs and agriculture," Ms Andrae said.

"Thankfully Border Force is continuing to be vigilant and tough on potential biosecurity breaches.

"I hope people are getting the message anybody could be the person who brings any sort of disease threat into Australia."

However, while extensive coronavirus quarantine strategies have kept numbers of infected Australians being treated to less than 25, nervousness about the global emergency has been felt in tourist hot spots such as the Gold Coast and Sydney's Chinatown, in major regional centres and the national capital as restaurant patrons avoid certain public places which they somehow fear may be risky.

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As the coronavirus epidemic exploded in China early this year and then emerged in other countries, usual Chinese new year celebrations fizzled, including in many Australian communities.

The downbeat mood continued as tourist numbers visiting from China dried up, and local Chinese, including students, stayed at home in self-imposed quarantine.

One in six businesses hurt

A Roy Morgan snap survey of almost 1200 Australian businesses this week reported one in six, or 15pc, were impacted by the coronavirus.

About 40pc of manufacturers and 30pc of education or training businesses reported being hurt.

Margot Andrae

Margot Andrae

Accommodation, food services and administrative and support services were also affected because workers or students were away from jobs or study, or supply lines for imports and exporting goods were disrupted.

Ms Andrae noted in Sydney, the food service lull was particularly obvious around universities, in Chinatown and in suburbs with prominent Asian populations, all of which would "normally be crowded at this time of year".

"Even a popular yum char restaurant in Canberra, where the queue normally extends onto the street, is only getting a third its normal numbers," she said.

We're hoping it will be a passing problem, because you'd think those who aren't eating out are still likely to want to cook pork at home - Edwina Beveridge, Young, NSW

NSW Farmers pork committee deputy chairman, and Young district pig producer Edwina Beveridge said wholesalers reported buying resistance in the food service sector, and the market had eased accordingly.

Mrs Beveridge, who with husband, Michael, runs a 2500-sow piggery, said pork prices were still remarkably good for pig producers at present, around the $4 a kilogram mark, but had slipped about 10 cents/kg on farm in recent weeks.

Hopes for quick recovery

"We're hoping it will be a passing problem, because you'd think those who aren't eating out are still likely to want to cook pork at home," she said.

Other market factors, including a post-Christmas inventory clearance by supermarkets, may have contributed to fewer buying orders.

Quite apart from our resident Asian population and the 1.3m Chinese tourists visiting every year representing a valuable market for Australian hotel, restaurant and quick food service sector, Aussies are generally keen consumers of Asian meals prepared outside the home.

APL's marketing general manager, Peter Hayden, said about 28pc of Australians were regularly eating out on any given evening, and more than a quarter of those diners bought Asian meals when eating away from home.

"Pork certainly outperforms all other meat dishes in Asian cuisine, but it's also been gaining strength in other areas, too," Mr Hayden said.

In 2010 Australians ate an average of 8.6 kilograms of fresh pork,

Overall Australians were expected to eat an average 10.2kg of fresh pork each in 2020 - up from 8.6kg/head 10 years ago.

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The story Pig sector gets coronavirus chills as restaurant bookings dive first appeared on Farm Online.

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