Where’d all the meat go?

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Meat section of Khuchit Shonkhor market
Meat section of Khuchit Shonkhor market

One of the most abundant things in Mongolia is livestock and yet just a week into 2019 locals have been deprived of their key source of protein – meat.

Meat shortage has smacked us hard in the face during the frostiest time of the year. In the first week of 2019, meat prices inflated by three to 6.2 percent, which is unheard of during the winter. There is a shortage of meat supply too.

Meat dealers are saying that this type of price spike and meat shortage has hit them a little too early this year, explaining that these events occur in spring when they run out of stored meat.

The latest report on meat prices provided by the National Statistics Office said, “Compared to the previous month (December 2018), prices of bone-in mutton jumped by 3.9 percent, bone-in beef by 3.4 percent, filleted beef by three percent, bone-in goat meat by 6.2 percent, and bone-in horse meat by 2.3 percent.”

The report continued to give a comparison of prices in the last week of 2018 and the first week of 2019. During this period, a one percent rise was observed in the average price of bone-in mutton, 0.7 percent rise in bone-in beef prices, and a 2.7 percent increase in bone-in goat prices. Fortunately, prices of filleted beef and bone-in horse meat remained the same, the report said.

In terms of price, bone-in mutton now costs 6,955 MNT per kilogram on average, bone-in beef is 8,590 MNT per kilogram, filleted beef is 10,300 MNT per kilogram, bone-in horse meat is 6,525 MNT per kilogram, and bone-in goat meat is averaging at 5,650 MNT per kilogram.

The usually busy meat sections of large markets and shopping centers now looks almost abandoned. Their displays hardly have any meat on the shelves. This shortage apparently wasn’t because it was just after the New Year’s celebrations but due to poor supply of meat.

One of the meat vendors at Khuchit Shonkhor Market said, “We used to get plenty of meat in this hall but now it’s changed. Five or six trucks come in the morning with fresh stock but it quickly runs out because (vendors) hustle for them. Currently, filleted goat meat is sold for 6,700 MNT per kilogram and filleted mutton for 7,800 MNT per kilogram. We’re mainly getting meat from Khentii and Dornod provinces. In fact, meat from provincial areas has drastically reduced. This is causing price spikes.”

“Bone-in mutton costs 6,800 MNT (per kilogram) but a whole sheep can be bought for 5,500 MNT per kilogram,” he said.

The vendor speculated that filleted meat prices hiked by at least 1,000 MNT per kg in the last week.

Mongolia has 66.5 million livestock

Mongolia's livestock population increased by 0.4 percent over the course of 2018, reaching 66.46 million in total, according to the preliminary results of a nationwide headcount of livestock released in late December.

The livestock census indicated that the number of cows and goats declined by 0.2 percent respectively compared to December 2017. Nevertheless, sheep increased by 443,600, up 1.5 percent; camels increased by 25,600, up 5.9 percent; and the number of horses remained the same as last year, at 3.94 million.

Considering this massive livestock population, Mongolia can certainly be proud. However, if it doesn’t pay attention to and start regulating meat sales, it might have to import meat and meat products from Russia or China like all of the other commodity products.

Watch out for Chinese buyers

A handful of meat vendors blamed Chinese meat dealers for the meat price hike. They explained that Chinese dealers or local dealers working for Chinese companies are disrupting local meat supply by offering a higher price to herders and taking the supply for themselves. As a result, meat vendors are unable to procure meat, causing the emptiness in meat sections of markets, they said.

There is hardly any horse meat for sale at markets. The few vendors selling meat have only beef. One of them said, “Even though Mongolia has over 60 million livestock, the reason meat prices are so high is that meat exportation isn’t regulated.”

He said in frustration, “Mongolians can process meat themselves and export them to China but a random Chinese comes by, offers whatever price and sweeps up all of the meat. This brings no good to the Mongolian public.”

Apparently, by the time supply trucks arrive at markets between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., most of the meat is already sold or reserved for “Chinese friends”, vendors claimed.

According to the General Agency of Specialized Inspection, China has increased meat import due to a recent case of swine flu.

“There was swine flu in China. In relation to this, we stopped importing pork and meat products from China since October and November 2018. They have been temporarily banned,” said a spokesperson for the agency.

Until the swine flu is contained and eradicated, China is likely to continue to purchase large amounts of meat from Mongolia while decreasing domestic supply and hiking prices.

How will people prepare for Tsagaan Sar?

Meat prices are expected to remain on the rise as they usually hikes before Tsagaan Sar, one of the most important celebrations in Mongolia. This is causing serious concerns among the people who have to start preparing soon.

Traditionally, Mongolians place uuts, a large cooked rump, of usually sheep on celebratory feast tables. In addition to this essential food piece of Tsagaan Sar, most Mongolians who love meat place steamed, cooked, fried and or barbequed meat dishes on the dining table. At current price, uuts costs 150,000 MNT at lowest and 280,000 MNT at highest.

“I need to put uuts on my Tsagaan Sar table but just a small rump costs 160,000 MNT. I need to steam and boil meat to place next to the uuts. Meat prices are too high. How will we, old people, celebrate Tsagaan Sar this year?” said an anxious elderly woman.

Another vendor said, “Meat prices increase only in spring. It doesn’t spike much in winter. Yet, the prices have reached rates that are usually seen in spring. So, what will happen in spring?” She blamed political instability and insufficient regulation for the high meat prices.

20 years of inflating meat prices

Food technologist G.Tserendulam reported that meat prices have steadily increased since 1999. She says that the price increase has become very noticeable to not only distributors but also ordinary consumers.

“A whole cow currently costs 7,500 MNT per kilogram in Khuchit Shonkhor market. Why has it suddenly risen so much when it was sold for only 4,500 MNT a kilogram in previous years? Ok, we can overlook the price but there’s a shortage of meat. In spring, starting from small restaurants to high-class restaurants, they will all increase their dish prices. An average family with three to four members used to spend an average of 250,000 MNT on meat a month but now, they will have to spend 400,000 MNT. A whole cow might sound a lot but if we think about the bones, croup, tendon and gland etc., around 30 percent of it is thrown away,” G.Tserendulam said.

Next, she shared some interesting information related to meat consumption of Mongolians.

“Statistics of the last five years show that Mongolians supplied 10 million to 12 million livestock for meat production. A breakdown of the type of livestock used for food shows that 23 percent was sheep, 21 percent was goat, 16 percent was cow, 10 percent was horse and seven percent camel,” she said.

Regarding government regulations, G.Tserendulam said that the government doesn’t supply more than 25 percent of sheep and goats, 15 percent of cows and horses, and three percent of camels for meat production.

The Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry and National Security Council impose a limit on meat exports. The yearly meat export limit is detailed below:

  • 3,412,400 sheep or 61,400 tons of meat
  • 3,132,900 goats or 47,000 tons of meat
  • 2,14,200 cows or 27,900 tons of meat
  • 291,000 horses or 43,600 tons of meat

What’s being done?

To addressing the continuous spike in meat prices, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry has assigned a working group to research appropriate measures and policies that can be taken to counter the rising meat prices caused by seasonal and supply-related reasons.

Commercial banks have issuing discounted loans to meat suppliers in recent years to ensure sufficient spring supply of meat for Ulaanbaatar and Darkhan-Uul Province. The ministry noted that this action has relatively stabilized meat supply and prevented extreme price spikes over the years, before sharing plans to use this method again.

“Dedicated to the meat consumption of Darkhan-Uul and Ulaanbaatar residents, we stocked up 12,800 tons of meat at 10 to 30 percent discounted prices from April to June last year. We will continue this work this year,” stated J.Saule, deputy minister of food, agriculture and light industry.

Dulguun Bayarsaikhan