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China's Growing Hunger for Meat Shown by Move to Buy Smithfield, World's Leading Pork Producer

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Half the world's pigs-more than 470 million of them-live in China, but even that may not be enough to satisfy the growing Chinese appetite for meat. While meat consumption in the United States has fallen more than 5 percent since peaking in 2007, Chinese meat consumption has leapt 18 percent, from 64 million to 78 million (metric) tons-twice as much as in the United States. Pork is by far China's favorite protein, which helps to explain the late-May announced acquisition of U.S. meat giant Smithfield Foods Inc., the world's leading pork producer, by the Chinese company Shuanghui International, owner of China's largest meat processor. China already buys more than 60 percent of the world's soybean exports to feed to its own livestock and has been a net importer of pork for the last five years. Now the move for Chinese companies is to purchase both foreign agricultural land and food-producing companies outright.

People in China ate 53 million tons of pork in 2012-six times as much as in the United States. On a per person basis, consumption in China first eclipsed that in the United States in 1997, and it has never looked back. Now the average Chinese eats 86 pounds (39 kilograms) of pig meat each year, compared with 59 pounds in the United States. As demand rises, pork is starting to shift from household- or farm-scale production into larger factory-like operations. Overcrowding in these facilities has been blamed for pollution and the spread of disease, as well as for the recent dumping of thousands of dead pigs into a river flowing into Shanghai.

Chinese chicken production and processing have also consolidated, as sadly seen in the recent fire at a large poultry plant in northeastern China that reportedly killed at least 120 people. China's chicken intake just recently caught up with that in the United States, with 13 million tons eaten in each country. It took China just 25 years to make the consumption leap achieved by the United States over a half-century.   


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