Wholesale meat markets in Beijing were quoting RMB38/kg to RMB41/kg (US$6.29/kg to $6.79) of sheepmeat in late December. This represents a year-on-year climb of 10-15%, according to several vendors questioned for this article. Lamb prices are thus fast catching up on beef prices. Beef, meanwhile, has risen 34% year-on-year, according to data published by the Ministry of Commerce in Beijing, based on data collected at wholesale meat markets: vendors in Xintiandi market in Beijing were charging RMB41.30/kg to RMB45/kg ($6.84/kg to $7.45/kg) in the last week of December.
Data polled by the state-run Xinhua news agency shows prices for lamb soared by 6.9% in Shanghai and 10.9% in the central Chinese megapolis of Chongqing (China’s largest urban space), although nationally, the average month-on-month price rise for lamb in December was 1.6%. This contrasts to retail prices for carp fish and chicken – both staples of Chinese home cooking – which both rose 0.2% in December compared to November prices.
Similar reasons are behind the rise in sheep meat as those cited for climbing beef prices: among them, higher feed costs and falling stock numbers – in part due to an exodus of rural dwellers for cities. Yet government has been seeking to encourage a rebuilding of stock numbers, in part through subsidies as well as government-funded pilot breeding programmes in traditional lamb production regions.
Lamb is particularly popular in hotpot restaurants, which do brisker business in sub-zero winter temperatures in northerly cities like Beijing. The HuangCheng Gen Lao Hot Pot, a popular hotpot restaurant visited by this journalist, was thronged with customers putting the thinly sliced rolls of lamb meat into boiling pots at RMB75 ($12.42) per person. Another lamb hotpot chain, the Little Sheep, is owned by Yum! which also operates KFC, China’s largest fast-food franchise (by number of outlets).
Ever wary of inflation, China has attempted to control prices through a Central Mutton Reserve, which pays processors to stockpile and periodically release mutton at set prices. A recent release in the large westerly city of Lanzhou by the Gansu Huimin Meat Co drew a rush of customers to wet markets and supermarkets, with the price climbing from RMB22 ($3.64)/500g to RMB28 ($4.64)/500g in a day, according to a report in the Lanzhou Daily.
While it’s not always clear if data refers to sheep or goats (terms for the two are written similarly in Mandarin), China has been supplementing local sheep herds with Suffolk sheep, which have been imported from New Zealand. Local breeding firms have described the Suffolk enthusiastically as the "fastest growing sheep" and local governments have been subsidising breeders, much in the way that China has subsidised the introduction of fast-growing foreign pig breeds like the Landrace. The government-run China Animal Husbandry Association has likewise dispatched staff to Ireland to study sheep breeds and breeding methods.
Breeding companies are reporting brisk demand for sheep. The Shandong Yibang Meat Co breeds and sells Suffolk as well as Charollais and the local Han breed from its headquarters in Jinnjing city in the south-easterly province of Shandong. Demand is brisk, says Hu Dianwei, due to government subsidy support for breeders. "It varies according to regions, but we get up to half the prices of a breeding ewe covered by local government, and more if the area is designated a poverty alleviation priority zone. There is also a subsidy for transport of sheep from our breeding bases… we sell to provinces maybe 1,000 miles away sometimes." Yiband sells Suffolk rams for an average of RMB2,500 ($414) with ewes making up to RMB2,000 ($331).