China’s pig fetish turns sour

Bringing home the bacon

When China’s dead pig problem bubbled to the surface in Shanghai’s rivers last week, I wasn’t surprised. Every meal I ate in China last October and November featured some part of a pig. On the one night when a flavorful white meat swam in a soupy broth, I thought we’d hit chicken pay dirt until the server informed me that we were eating a favorite character of my childhood – Piglet. (Help, help, cried Piglet, “a Heffalump, a Horrible Heffalump!”)

Half of the world’s pigs – an estimated 476 million – live in China. About 100,000 tons of pork is consumed in that country every day. That’s double the ham hocks, bacon, pork belly, pig’s ear, spareribs, etc., that we eat in the United States. According to a study by the Earth Policy Institute, Americans were winning the bacon battle until about 1997 when China raced ahead of us in the pork war. In the last five years, we’ve backed off pork by about 2 percent a year while China has hammed it up to an estimated 52 million tons consumed in 2012. Americans eat about 59 pounds of pork every year. Chinese eat about 84 pounds.

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I wish I were in America, right now.

As I traveled across the Guizhou Province in southwestern China, I crossed the paths of many a porker. Villagers were often proud of their resident pigs, who usually claimed a pungent spot near the footpath leading to the home. Families who lived in the stilt houses conveniently located their pig sty just below the bathroom or kitchen so scraps and waste could be recycled.

One day at a crowded festival, I launched into an elaborate charade to convey my urgency to urinate. (Travel tip: knees squeezed together and a hissing sound work the best). Two women in festival attire finally got the message and motioned me to follow them through the back alleys of the village. We worked our way past the chickens, a sad donkey, a lounging water buffalo, three dogs, an emaciated cat and an old woman who shouted angrily and pointed us toward a pig sty way in the back. The first door revealed the family pig who wasn’t eager to share his digs, but he snorted us toward Door #2 where a relief hole awaited. For the rest of the trip, I knew to sniff my way toward the pig sty when nature called.

Hope those are raindrops falling on my head.
What I wouldn't give for an upstairs apartment.
What I wouldn’t give for an upstairs apartment.

Pigs play such an important role in Chinese culture that the Mandarin character for “home” depicts a pig under a roof. Homegrown swine may solve the problem of recycling waste and feeding the family, but China’s craving isn’t keeping up with consumption.

“Mom says we’re not supposed to play with our food.”

Which brings us to the problem floating around Shanghai last week. Thousands of dead pigs were discovered belly up in a local river, and authorities still can’t explain why. According to an NPR report, some of the pigs could be traced to Jiaxing in the Zhejiang province, but no one’s coughing up any answers. Here’s the link to the story in case you missed it:

Hopefully, the pig-dumping crisis will get resolved without unreasonable restrictions placed on the rural villagers who raise pigs for their own consumption. In a land where the government works overtime to create a country of consumers, it will be heartbreaking if the family pig gets relocated to Super Swine Mart.

Bringing home the bacon won’t be the same.

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