Wholesale market vendors in the massive south-westerly city of Chongqing are quoting a jump of RMB2-RMB4/kg in freshly butchered lamb prices to an average of RMB70/kg with a shortage of lambs and mountain goats blamed by traders at the large Xiao Long Kan market in the city.
Chongqing gets its lamb from herds in neighbouring Gansu province, a key sheep-producing region, where government is providing RMB1.2 billion in subsidies to create 35 demonstration sheep farms in three cities with advanced breeding and fodder, due to be completed by end 2015.
A lack of access to sufficient quality fodder is hampering expansion of lamb numbers in Gansu, which breeds 21.8 million and kills 6.06 million sheep per year, according to the provincial Animal Husbandry Association, a state body.
Government officials promised to "make shepherds rich" at this month’s Xing An Meng Mutton Conference in the heart of Inner Mongolia’s sheep pastureland, pledging to do this through industrialised lamb processing, as well as the creation of "dragon head" enterprises – a favourite government ploy of grooming a handful of very large regional companies, which get preferential access to government grants and finance in return for creating scale as well as ensuring food safety and employment.
Wholesale (non-frozen) lamb meat prices range significantly across the country, with RMB32.50/500g and RMB33/500g quoted in the sea port cities of Qingdao and Dalian respectively. Prices in Ningxia, a more pastoral province with plenty of sheep, quoted RMB22.50/500g while in the central city of Changsha lamb meat was making RMB27.50/500g according to state data.
Elsewhere, an influx of frozen lamb from New Zealand and Australia is helping dampen prices: December prices in 2013 fluctuated between RMB52-60/kg, but slipped to RMB24/kg, according to distributor and wholesaler Ma Yuchen, who sells fresh and frozen meat at the Sanyuanli market, popular with local restaurants.
Restaurants across Beijing, including the Little Sheep chain, claim mutton-seeking diners were filing into the cavernous Xi Lin Meng Shuan ‘hotpot city’ restaurant on Guangqumen Da Jie, a popular dining area in Beijing’s central Dongcheng district this weekend.
With seating for 400, the restaurant’s menu assures diners – who spend an average RMB100 per head according to staff – that the lamb is "natural fed on grasslands" in the company’s own herds in Inner Mongolia. Business picks up by 20% to 30% between November and the peak Chinese New Year festival (which next year falls in mid-February) explained floor manager Li Yuchen. "On a cold night, friends like to gather around the hotpot because it’s warm and cosy… Lamb is popular in Beijing because it’s never really had the big scandals about rotting pigs or chicken flu," she explained.