Politics & Government

Trump put a tariff on Chinese steel. Now North Carolina pig farmers could feel pain

Curious hogs crowd a photographer on a Nebraska hog farm (David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/MCT)
Curious hogs crowd a photographer on a Nebraska hog farm (David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

The latest battleground in the looming U.S.-China trade war: Frozen pig parts from North Carolina.

When China announced a 25 percent tariff on U.S. pork products in retaliation to President Donald Trump’s 25 percent tariff on imported steel and 10 percent tariff on aluminum, the state's pork industry shuddered.

The Beijing government’s pork tariff targets fresh or cold pig forelegs, hindquarters and the animals' meat, as well as frozen bone forelegs, legs and frozen liver.

North Carolina, which ranks second in the nation in pork production, does a small but brisk export business in pig parts.

One of its main customers is China, the world’s biggest buyer of pork byproducts. The world’s most populous nation has a hunger for offal — the parts of the pig Americans rarely eat — for soups, sausages and other dishes.

If America and China got tit for tat in a trade war, these are the industries that could be hardest hit.

“They’re ingredients that are combined in dishes,” said Jock O’Connell, a trade economist with Beacon Economics in California. “You don’t necessarily want to talk about what’s in the hot dog, but you like the hot dog.”

While the appetite for offal isn’t big in the U.S., it’s huge in China.

“My favorite dish is Lu pig feet,” Yunxi Qiu, 32, an assistant professor at the Communication University of China in Beijing, said in an email exchange that included a recipe to cook the dish. “In almost every market you can buy well-done Lu pig feet. We had it not only in meals, (but at) picnics. You can also find it as an appetizer in ceremony dinner parties such as weddings.”

About 25 percent of the pork products produced in North Carolina are exported, and about 15 percent of that goes to China, mainly the offal or “variety meats.”

“On the North Carolina side, the products that I’m aware of that go to China would include feet, ears, snout, stomach — stomach is a big part of the trade,” said Andy Curliss, North Carolina Pork Council chief executive officer.

“It’s not a significant (market), but it’s a valuable market because those are products nobody else pays for,” Curliss added. “We’re watching with concern, but it’s not catastrophic right now.”

President Donald Trump said he will impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports in response to what he called decades of unfair trade policies. Trump summoned steel and aluminum executives to the White House and told them that next week he would

Congress is watching, too. Lawmakers in both parties have criticized Trump’s tariff moves, saying they will adversely impact U.S. farmers.

“North Carolina is the second largest U.S. producer of pork and China has already placed retaliatory tariffs on pork,” Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., a member of the House Agriculture Committee said. “Making matters worse, the president has failed to put forth real solutions to mitigate the effects of his trade war.”

Trump last month vowed to help U.S. farmers impacted by the brewing trade war, saying “we’ll make it up to them.” He has tasked the Department of Agriculture to develop a plan to help farmers.

If the Chinese tariffs become intolerable, North Carolina could look to export its pork byproducts to other Asian countries with similar palates or sell them to rendering plants for conversion into other food products or materials.

But that could mean a decline in profits because “China probably pays the most because they have a more developed middle class now,” Curliss said.

McClatchy's Brian Murphy contributed to this report.

Mulefoot pigs are representative of a rare breed of U.S. livestock. Some argue that the best way to save this breed of pigs is to eat it, to help rebuild populations.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas