Smithfield Foods shipped so much pork to China recently that the only thing stopping it from sending more is the company ran out of blast freezer space in the area, according to the Port of Virginia’s chief sales officer.
The ramp-up in shipments from the Virginia meat plant can be tied to the African swine fever, which over the past two years has led to a decline of about 40 percent of China’s pig population. China had about half the global pig population. It is also the world’s top consumer of pork.
Smithfield -- owned by China’s WH Group since 2013 -- wouldn’t say exactly how much meat it’s sent to China.
No one from the company was made available for an interview on Wednesday, and an outside public-relations representative wrote in an email to The Virginian-Pilot that volume data is not “publicly available.”
But an outside analyst said Smithfield dominated the export field late last year, beating out competitors Tyson and Swift. Smithfield sent roughly 38.8 million pounds of pork to China between June and September, according to Panjiva, a division of S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Using an average slaughter pig weight of 230 pounds, that translates to roughly 168,701 pigs.
The Smithfield pork exports -- which ship out from the Port of Virginia in refrigerated containers -- stand out during a year where the ongoing trade dispute between the U.S. and China had a dampening effect on cargo volumes.
In 2019, imports from Asia were down a couple percentage points, the port’s chief sales officer Tom Capozzi said during a board meeting last month. Imports from China alone were down 10%.
Overall, the port had a strong year, with container volumes increasing by nearly 3% compared to the year before. The port, however, was down 1.2% in the number of loaded containers it exported, Capozzi said. (The port tracks both the number of loaded and empty containers it handles.)
Soybeans and forest products like logs and lumber were hit particularly hard, with 55,000 fewer standard 20-foot containers of them leaving the port than the year before. If those two categories had just broken even, Capozzi said at the meeting, loaded container exports overall would have been up 4.4% instead of down.
Smithfield had long sought to make inroads into the Chinese pork market but protective tariffs on “mom-and-pop” pig farmers created barriers, said Herb De Groft, a former Smithfield executive who worked there up until 2003. De Groft recalls reading an article in the late 1980s about the amount of pork the Chinese consume, and mentioning it to the company’s then-CEO Joseph W. Luter III.
“Little did I dream that Shuanghui would buy the company,” De Groft said in an interview Wednesday, using WH Group’s former name.
The boom in pork exports late last year came despite there being a 62% tariff on pork being sent to China from the U.S. That high tariff is causing an overall decline in pork exports and leading U.S. pork producers to lose $1 billion each year, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council has said.
Without the tariff, U.S. pork sales would double, the group said.