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Pork in short supply: Processors push for imports but consumers unaffected

Published:Tuesday | February 24, 2015 | 11:04 PMTameka Gordon

Local pork consumption has improved over the years amid the Ministry of Agriculture's push to stave off imports, but the sector is now facing a shortfall of supplies to processors, who are calling for a relaxation of import permits.

Since last November, commercial interests in the meat-processing business were alerting the sector to an impending shortage, as demand for pork was rising.

President of the Jamaica Pig Farmers' Association (JPFA), Hanif Brown, while conceding the shortage is not expected to impact consumers much, said a three-month leeway for processors to import would allow the sector to catch up.

He projects demand and supply may synchronise by September, with full market stabilisation by the first quarter of 2016.

Pork consumption in 2013 amounted to 10.5 million kg, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. But while that figure represented a fall from 11.1 million kg in 2012, that was an outlier year in which consumption "was unusually high" because of a glut, said director at the agriculture ministry, Michael Price.

"We don't have final figures for 2014, but it is an increasing trend," Price said.

Brown told Wednesday Business that while the association is keen on protecting the local industry, the supply shortfall was anticipated three months ago.

"By November, few of our processors indicated that they had seen an increase in the normal demand for pork and pork products. So somewhere around November, we recognised that we would have the supply up to the December period, but thereafter, we would go into a shortage in the early part of the year," Brown told Wednesday Business.

Factors affecting shortage

The JPFA has urged its farmers to improved their production, Brown said, adding that 90 per cent of local production is done by medium-size farmers.

"What we have requested of them is to bring back up their production. Quite a few of them have indicated that they are doing that," he said.

Several pig farmers opted out of the industry during the glut, he said, with others significantly scaling back their production. These factors, along with rising input costs, fed into the current shortage, Brown said.

It takes roughly 10 months between breeding and getting the pig to market, he added.

But while the farmers are working to improve

output, chief revenue officer of Caribbean Producers Jamaica, David Lowe, says "the reality is there just isn't enough local stock" for companies to maintain their bottom line.

Jamaica does not rely on pork imports and has not imported the meat on a large scale since the mid-2000s, with only pork trimmings and pork belly imported for valued-added processing.

The shift to local output was the result of a push by late Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke, who stressed the need to strengthen the domestic industry and limited the issuance of permits for pork imports.

Imports have not been banned, but the Ministry says it maintains control through moral suasion.

"There is no official cancellation of importation," Price said.

Both Price and Permanent Secretary Donovan Stanberry said processors are "encouraged" to seek supplies locally.

"Jamaica practises free trade, so if people want to import any agricultural product, it is allowed, subject to satisfying phytosanitary requirements," Stanberry told Wednesday Business.

He conceded that "there might, in fact, be some tightness in supply at this time", while noting that "if there are, in fact, genuine shortages and people apply for permits then it will be considered subject to the phytosanitary requirements".

Stanberry added that Jamaica has gone through three Christmases without having to import pork, and has not experienced "any unusual rush of requests for permits".

Discussions with major players in the industry, by Wednesday Business, how-ever, suggest processors have been clamouring to new approach to imports since mid-2014.

"Since late last year, the JPFS made it known to the Ministry that from the farmers' side, we would not be able coming into 2015, have the full supply for some of our processors for about three months," said Brown.

"We actually requested of the processors for them to supply the ministry with what their demand for the first quarter of 2015 was going to be so that we, the association, would be able to ascertain what we can supply and what would be our shortfall," he said.

Either way, the inability to properly forecast creates challenges for processors who are not assured of consistent supply, said Lowe of CPJ.

He spoke in favour of a window for imports during shortages but cautioned that such a policy should not allow processors to bypass local production when supplies are available domestically.

"The reality is the number of pigs in production in Jamaica will never be able to support to total amount demanded by the key processors, in terms of pork bellies ... so where there are certain types of cuts that can certainly be satisfied by local production, there are other things that cannot be supported at this point," said Lowe.

Brown said the ministry grants permits for the imports, of pig tails, trimmings and bellies to make sausage and bacon, as those are always in short supply, even when farmers are at peak production."

Processors, however, agree to purchase cuts and legs locally.

Caribbean Broilers, operators of Copperwood Pork, said it stands ready to sell impregnated sows into the market to stabilise the numbers and address the shortage.

"We are currently distributing gilts for the end users so that they will have piglets on the ground within three months," Dr Keith Amiel, corporate affairs manager for CB Group, told Wednesday Business. Gilts are young female swine.

Amiel said CB Group has adequate supplies of pork in circulation and large prime cuts in storage for those who want to buy.