ANGELES CITY, Pampanga — At a restaurant that once hosted the late rock star chef Anthony Bourdain, a loyal customer mixes finely chopped pork on a sizzling plate, ignoring the African swine fever scare that is rocking the P260-billion hog industry.
Since the swine fever outbreak was confirmed, Aling Lucing Sisig Queen, a foodie destination in this trading city north of the capital, halved its daily pig-head orders to 50 to 60 from 100. Elsewhere, freezer chests remain stocked with tocino (sweet cured pork) and longganisa (pork sausage) while local eateries report diners switching to vegetables and other meats.
Pampanga prides itself with its sweet brand of cured meats and sausages. Many of its popular recipes use pork like sisig (chopped parts of a pig's head served sizzling) and morcon or meat rolled with cheese, eggs and carrots. A homegrown brand, Mekeni, recently recalled some products that tested positive for the virus, which is fatal to pigs, not humans.
"Iba rin iyong ‘pag may pork kasi iyon ang naging habitual namin mula sa pagkabata. Nag-aalaga rin kami sa mga backyard dati... ‘Pag may handaan, katay," teacher and Aling Lucing's regular Henry Manaloto told ABS-CBN News.
(Pork has been our habitual food since childhood. We used to raise hogs in our backyard. We butcher them for feasts.)
Pork accounts for 60 percent of meat consumption in the Philippines, where the swine industry is valued at P260 billion, according to the Department of Agriculture. Swine fever has been confirmed in some areas in Pampanga, Bulacan and Metro Manila.
In October, prices of chicken and beef started to increase, especially in swine-fever-stricken areas such as Central Luzon and Metro Manila, according to official data.
7,000 PIGS CULLED
For about a month, Emy Medina and her family ate pork that she failed to sell at the town market here. Some of the unsold meat spoiled in storage for most of September, when authorities started culling some 7,000 pigs to prevent the spread of the virus.
Medina sold 4 carcasses daily before the swine fever outbreak, which was halved to 2 towards the end of October. She said it got worse when some Mekeni products tested positive for the virus.
"Nagpi-pick up na last week, biglang lumitaw iyong Mekeni. Natakot na naman [ang mga kustomer]... nakikita nila sa TV iyong mga dumudugong ilong na baboy, mga sinusunog,” she added.
(When this Mekeni issue appeared, the customers got scared again. They see TV reports of pigs bleeding from the nose, hogs being burned.)
Mekeni said it was committed to quality products as it traced the source of the contamination.
The food arm of the country's largest conglomerate, San Miguel, which makes Tender Juicy brand hotdogs, issued a public advisory saying its products were safe to eat.
At the public market, inspection certificates dangled above pork cuts as vendors, who said their sales were halved, sought to convince consumers of the safety of their products.
"Parang nagtitinda ka na lang sa sari-sari (It’s like you’re just selling at a mom-and-pop store)," said Alice Goingco, whose daily sale of longganisa and tocino slumped to 20 kilos from 50 kilos.
Other vendors like Lucino Ramos, 76, laid off helpers to offset losses.
"Lahat sila minsan nakatunganga na lang, dati very busy," Ramos said of his helpers, adding that he has stopped selling some products, like his son’s siomai or pork dumplings.
(Sometimes they just stand there and do nothing. They used to be very busy.)
Carinderia manager Elizabeth Castillo, whose stall is located a few blocks from Aling Lucing's, said sales of pork dishes were halved from around 10 kilos a day, and some customers asked to have pork bits excluded from noodle dishes.
'HOW LONG' IS THE ISSUE
The Philippine Association of Meat Processors Inc. (PAMPI) — which has 83 members including CDO, Pampanga’s Best, Swift Foods and Cebu’s Virginia Food — said sales went down by 30 to 40 percent after 67 out of 81 provinces imposed “varying levels” of ban on pork products from Luzon.
Scaling down production for breakfast staples longganisa, hotdog and tocino “is a given”, which puts at risk the employment of around 150,000 workers directly hired by PAMPI, said its spokesman, Rex Agarrado.
"The ‘how long’ is an issue that can only be answered by how fast will national government leadership get involved," he told ABS-CBN News.
Agarrado said PAMPI in September stopped the production of Christmas hams for Visayas and Mindanao, eliminating the need to hire 10,000 seasonal workers.
Local government bans on pork products "is not a sustainable equation" because it implies that pork is not safe and the national government should "get involved," said Agarrado.
"Will it change things? I don’t know, but for me, it will be very sad if I will see a Christmas Eve table without any ham at all," he said.
"This situation has gone too long and both sides, the hog raisers and the meat processors, will be losing out. The tinderas (vendors) are no longer able to sell. This is going to pull down the dream that we have to progress this country," he said.