It seems China is head over heels for lamb, and has a strong affection for mutton with the latest industry figures showing a strong uptick in the country's demand for sheepmeat.
According to the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment trade data for February shows a 170 per cent jump in demand for Australian lamb from the January levels to see export volumes hit 5622 tonnes shipped weight.
This is the highest February Aussie lamb export level to China on record and represents volumes that are 38pc over the five-year seasonal average for February.
February mutton volumes to China also performed well, lifting 69pc over the month to register 6242 tonnes swt exported.
But Thomas Elder Markets analyst Matt Dalgleish said the surge comes as increased reports of a second wave of new types of African Swine Fever (ASF) hitting the Chinese pig herd and setting back their rebuild.
"The big news item in livestock is ASF has reared its ugly head again with anecdotal evidence that there is possibly some new strains rampaging through China that is estimated to have wiped out an estimate of about seven to eight million head of sows ," Mr Dalgleish said.
"That is going to put them back a bit.
"It is early days yet, but last time around it took them eight or nine months before Chinese officials admitted they had an issue."
He said the export data released last week was curious in regards to sheepmeat, lamb in particular.
"The numbers were back at record levels for lamb exports from Australia to China and they actually exactly matched the February record for 2019, which was the highest on record for February - over 6000 tonne of lamb exported to China," he said.
"That could already be a signal that some of the issues with ASF are already starting to flow through into the red meat markets.
"If the herd rebuild was there, the export market into China would be curtailed."
He said earlier in the month data on the pig herd rebuild in China seemed to be at odds with what the official Chinese government reporting suggested.
And now, with the prospect of a delayed rebuild and further complications from ASF it seems the Chinese consumer is out on the hunt for other meat proteins again.
"As was the case with lamb exports to China, this is the strongest mutton export volumes to occur during February on record, matching the previous record set in February 2019 when the ASF led demand for meat protein was in full swing," Mr Dalgleish said.
"The February 2021 flow of mutton to China is 110pc higher than the five-year average trend for February."
"The strong lift in Chinese demand for mutton supported a broader increase to total mutton exports from Australia over February to see a 30pc gain in total volumes from the January figures.
"Total mutton shipments recorded 12,228 tonnes swt for February, a level that is 15pc under the five-year seasonal pattern for February."
Meanwhile, lamb export consignments to the USA saw a 48pc lift from their January levels to see 5277 tonnes shipped.
"China and the USA are Australia't top two destinations for lamb exports so it is pleasing to see such a good rebound in both markets during February," Mr Dalgleish said.
"Although, despite the strong US performance the February levels remain 10pc under the average seasonal pattern for this time in the year."
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