Pork holiday

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 10, 2021 - 12:00am

There goes the pata tim for those who didn’t do their shopping early for the Lunar New Year.

As of yesterday, there was no whole pork pata front to be had even at the S&R membership shopping branch along Macapagal Boulevard. There was only sliced pork leg at P195 a kilo. There was no pork shoulder or kasim either. But there was pork belly or liempo, at P385 per kilo – way above the P300 price cap set by the government for the wet markets.

There was no shortage of dressed chicken at S&R. The special free-range whole chicken was priced at P212.95 per kilo. Free-range chicken is always slightly more expensive than the regular, but that price is still way higher than the P160 cap imposed by the government.

Supermarkets like S&R are not yet covered by the price ceiling. But similar caps for supermarkets are being worked out for imported pork and chicken, and the cap will be lower than in the wet market, the Department of Trade and Industry said yesterday.

The Monterey meat shop near my home also continued to sell pork and chicken yesterday. I was able to buy chicken wings, but there was also no pata front.

Last Monday night, at the end of the first day of the “pork holiday” staged by vendors in Metro Manila to protest the price cap on pork and chicken, Agriculture Secretary William Dar assured us on OneNews’ “The Chiefs” that the meats would be back in the wet markets before Feb. 12, the Lunar New Year.

So maybe I can still cook my pata tim, and I won’t have to settle for just canned stewed pork leg in my New Year long-life sotanghon.

As usual, we’re making jokes about our predicament. The old quip – “how baboy the pig!” – is enjoying a revival.

At least seafood prices haven’t spiked despite the approach of the Lunar New Year. There was a slight but reasonable increase in the prices of live lapu-lapu at my suki fishmonger in Baclaran. There’s hope for this Year of the Ox; nothing can possibly be worse than the Rat Year of COVID.

*      *      *

The lunar year is off to an inauspicious start for the hog growers and meat dealers, but even in this problem, there is hope. The swine industry has been reeling since 2019 from African swine fever. Dar is pinning his hopes on vaccines for ASF that China and Vietnam are reportedly preparing for rollout. Britain and Canada are also said to be in advanced stages of R&D on similar vaccines.

Like COVID-19, however, epidemiologists are warning that the ASF virus has mutations in Africa that might be resistant to the vaccines.

In the meantime, local hog raisers naturally are opposing the plan of the Department of Agriculture to import pork to address the supply and pricing problems.

Last Monday’s pork holiday, however, seems to have hardened the resolve of the government to push ahead with the importation. Dar told us that the imports are expected within days. Let’s hope the imports won’t be bringing in more ASF or some other pathogen.

Hog producers are pointing to the ASF infestation, which has now jumped to the Visayas, threatening Luzon’s supply. Thanks to ASF, which first spread in Rizal and Bulacan months before the COVID pandemic, Luzon has been depending increasingly on pork from the Visayas and Mindanao. San Miguel Foods Corp. has announced that it is getting out of the piggery business because of ASF.

Due to ASF, a dealer of lechon or roast pig in my part of Metro Manila, who used to get his native pigs (the best for lechon) in Southern Luzon and the Visayas, now sources his hogs all the way from General Santos City.

Naturally, the increased logistics cost – complicated by pandemic restrictions – is passed on to consumers. These days, pork producers sigh that cold-chain service fees have also gone up because facilities are being reserved for the COVID vaccination. This is also tacked on to the cost of pork.

Higher pork prices have driven demand for chicken – thus the higher chicken prices as well, although the lechon manok and liempo dealers have not increased their prices since the Christmas holidays.

Dar is not insensitive to the hog producers’ problems. He told us that P27 billion is being allocated for the recovery of commercial hog growers.

But the government must also address consumers’ concerns, so it is standing firm on the price caps. Pork importation is expected to increase as the pork holiday continues.

*      *      *

As in mass transport strikes, vendors normally cannot sustain a prolonged holiday in their livelihoods. But if their profit margin is too small, maybe they would rather sell fruits or vegetables, whose prices remain high. My suki is embarrassed to tell me the prices of squash and bell peppers these days.

Dar attributes the high vegetable prices to the residual impact of typhoons in the last quarter of 2020. He is confident that vegetable prices will soon stabilize.

He blames middlemen for manipulating pork supply and prices, exploiting the COVID pandemic restrictions and the ASF infestation. The vendors who staged the holiday in fact said they bought the meats high so retailing within the price cap set by the government won’t be worth the effort.

The government is pinning the blame for high pork and chicken prices on manipulation by middlemen.

Hog industry players, on the other hand, say the government is just looking for an excuse to import meat, for reasons we can only speculate about.

Similar issues have been raised in previous rice shortages. We’ve heard of a rice cartel; now we have a hog cartel? If this is true, the manipulators should be apprehended and promptly penalized.

People feeling the pork shortage want to know who should be held accountable for this crisis and be damned as the swine.

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