Lamb imports soar as former favorite cuts get the chop from shoppers
China’s hunger for lamb and mutton has pushed the country to import more of it recently with trade partners that help the nation keep up with domestic demand for the high-protein, low-fat meat
Thanks to China’s higher earnings and increasingly diverse diet, mutton has become popular.
Last year, the country imported 259,000 metric tons of mutton — mainly Australia and New Zealand — which was a 109 percent increase over the previous year, according to the General Administration of Customs.
Ding Shengjun, senior researcher at the Academy of State Administration of Grain, said Chinese consumers have taken to lamb, and the meat can be found at hot pot, halal and other restaurants across the country.
“Urbanization is another key factor that has shifted Chinese diets from containing mostly grains to one that includes more meat and dairy products,” Ding said.
Consumers, he said, are “not only interested in buying lamb chunks as before” but are purchasing different parts of the sheep, a trend that has surged in recent years.
Australia, one of China’s major suppliers, shipped 10,092 metric tons of sheep shoulder chops and 27,026 metric tons of mutton sweetbreads to China in 2013, both up more than 50 percent from a year earlier.
Chinese demand for Australian leg of lamb jumped 72 percent year-on-year to 6,390 metric tons last year, according to customs data.
Yu Bin, director of the department of macroeconomic research at the State Council Development Research Center, said the changes in food consumption reflect greater economic success. One obvious sign is rising international trade in food products.
Chinese citizens consumed an average of 16.5 kg of mutton per capita in 2013, compared with only 12 kilograms in 2008. The Beijing-based China Meat Association predicts that this figure will reach 28 kg between 2017 and 2022.
“The demand for mutton certainly will provide many opportunities for major mutton-exporting markets such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada,” Yu said.
Yu said demand for the meat in China’s western region, particularly in Ningxia Hui autonomous region, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Qinghai and Gansu provinces, has quickly grown over the past three years, mainly because it is getting more expansive to raise sheep in western China, where the economy and livestock industry are less developed than in the eastern provinces.
Due to rising feed prices, limited grazing land and the breeding cycle, China’s sheep breeding sector lags behind consumer demand and has resulted in higher lamb prices over the past five years, according to a report released in December by the Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development in Agriculture of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
Wang Kai, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University in Jiangsu province, said the soaring cost of raising sheep has squeezed sheep ranchers’ profit margins since 2007. In response, they started seeking alternatives, raising pigs, chicken and even donkeys.
To ensure that provinces and autonomous regions in western China get sufficient supplies, at major festival times, the central government has been providing mutton and beef to such regions as Xinjiang and Ningxia, where people have eating habits and religions similar to those of Muslim countries.
The central government supplied 7,200 metric tons of State-reserved mutton and beef with set prices to Xinjiang in January and continued to offer financial and technical assistance to encourage locals to raise their own sheep to keep up with mutton demand in the region.