Pork prices in Laos are rising sharply after the country was not spared in a regional African Swine Fever (ASF) outbreak originating in China last year.
Pork is very important to Lao cuisine and under normal circumstances, Laos would import a lot of pork from China to supplement the domestic supply in the Southeast Asian country.
According to the latest update from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, China has seen 165 ASF outbreaks in 32 provinces since August 2018 and more than a million pigs have been culled.
Laos, meanwhile, has seen 170 ASF outbreaks in 18 provinces since ASF was first reported there in June 2019, and more than 40,000 pigs were culled or died because of the disease.
The ASF epidemic has led to a major pork shortage in Laos, which has been exacerbated by a series of droughts, floods and other disasters that Laos experienced last year, including a dry season that lasted well into what should have been the rainy season.
As such, food in general is more expensive in Laos, and the government is trying to control prices but sources say their efforts are unrealistic.
“We have issued decree number 474, a law that limits food prices,” an official of Vientiane’s Industry and Trade Department told RFA’s Lao Service last month.
“Pork is set at U.S. $3.94 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) and beef is fixed at $9.57. Whoever sells at higher prices will be issued a warning for their first offense and fined for their second,” the official said.
A resident of Vientiane told RFA that prices were rising in local markets, sometimes higher than the government’s fixed prices.
“In Phon Savang Market in the suburbs, a kilogram of pork is $4.60, up from $3.94, beef is $9.57, up from $8.45, and rice is $1.13, up from $1.00,” the source said.
Another resident of Vientiane told RFA, “The cost of living has been rising quickly since New Year’s Day. Everything is more expensive.”
“With this high inflation, the poor are getting poorer. It is hurting them the worst,” he said.
“The government said it would control prices, but they can’t do anything,” he added.
“Because of the natural disasters, especially the drought, it will probably take at least a year for prices to stabilize,” he said.
“We’re selling at $5.06 per kilo because we bought it at $3.94 [the fixed price] from the slaughterhouse,” a retailer who was selling pork at higher than government-mandated prices at another market in Vientiane told RFA. “Since we bought it expensively at the source, we have to sell it at a higher price,” the retailer said.
Another retailer told RFA that selling pork at just slightly higher than the mandated price would not be profitable because of taxes.
Steady rise in meat consumption
Prices at different markets can go even higher, like at Khouadin Market in central Vientiane.
Grade 1, the highest grade of pork, sells for $6.19 per kilo, but lesser grades can be bought for $5.63, still much higher than the mandated price.
“Pork is in short supply right now. Before, I would go get 300 kilograms of pork from the slaughterhouse. Now they will only give me 200,” a trader at the market told RFA.
A customer from Vientiane told RFA that the prices were too steep.
“At $5.00 per kilo, that’s a ripoff. It’s too hard for us because prices are going up but our salaries are still the same,” the customer said, adding that pork should be sold for under $4.00 and beef at less than $8.50.
The Industry and Trade Department official told RFA authorities will punish sellers who ignore price guidelines.
“We are inspecting farms, slaughterhouses and markets and observing everyone’s prices. The retail price for pork should be $4.50 per kilogram. If a seller goes above that, his or her goods will be confiscated,” the official said.
ASF causes pork shortage
An official from Luang Namtha province said the pork shortage occurred because “northern provinces [which border China] have been banning pork imports from China and Vietnam [which was also heavily hit by ASF] since March last year.”
“Before the outbreak, Lao farmers raised pigs free-range, so the ASF outbreak killed about half of their pig stock. So now Laos has fewer pigs raised domestically,” the official told RFA on Friday.
The official said that many of the pig farms in northern Laos are owned by Chinese, and the swine raised there are not sold in local markets.
“Chinese will mostly sell to fellow Chinese workers and only a small portion of their pork will hit the local market,” the official said.
“Another reason prices are rising right now is because most pork retailers must import from Thailand to keep up with demand. The kip is weak against the baht right now, so that, combined with such a low supply is causing prices to rise sharply.”
Officials in Luang Prabang and Oudomxay provinces also told RFA that ASF was to blame for the pork shortage.
According to a Vientiane Times report published in March 2019, Laos was expected to have a per capita meat consumption of 65 kilograms (143 pounds) in 2020. That figure was expected to rise to 79 kilos (174 pounds) by 2025.
Meat consumption had been steadily rising since the beginning of the decade due to increases in income. In 2011, the per capita consumption rate was a mere 47 kilograms (103 pounds).
Reported and translated RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.