Trade war's accidental casualty - pets

A pet owner with a dog in a backpack browsing shelves of imported pet food in a shop in Shanghai on Sept 15. American pet food brands have become collateral damage in a trade war that encompasses hundreds of billions of dollars in goods that flow bet
A pet owner with a dog in a backpack browsing shelves of imported pet food in a shop in Shanghai on Sept 15. American pet food brands have become collateral damage in a trade war that encompasses hundreds of billions of dollars in goods that flow between the US and China.PHOTO: NYTIMES
A dog swimming in a Shanghai pet store on Sept 15. Soaring costs have made it expensive for city dwellers to start families, so many buy animals instead.
A dog swimming in a Shanghai pet store on Sept 15. Soaring costs have made it expensive for city dwellers to start families, so many buy animals instead. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Anxious pet owners have taken to stocking up on imported pet food.
Anxious pet owners have taken to stocking up on imported pet food. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Owners in China, wary of locally made pet food, face shipment delays and price hikes for imports

SHANGHAI • Ms Olivia Ren never expected a trade war between the United States and China to affect Dada.

Dada is Ms Ren's beloved golden retriever, and she pays heavily in Shanghai for an imported US brand of pet food called Canidae so that he can eat the best.

Ms Ren often tastes his food herself to make sure it is not rancid or poisonous, as she believes Chinese pet food can sometimes be.

Now, Canidae and other US brands have become collateral damage in a trade war that encompasses hundreds of billions of dollars in goods that flow between the two countries.

Pet food industry experts say revenge-minded Chinese officials have been delaying shipments at Customs since May to get back at the US. New tariffs in July have also made imported pet food more expensive.

In June, desperate for supplies, Ms Ren bought around 90kg of Canidae pet food for Dada and for her boyfriend's dog, a french bulldog named Houhou.

"I have nightmares that wake me up with anxiety about not being able to buy Canidae any more," she said.

MISTRUST

Domestic pet food is poisonous... No matter how good they say it is, I will never trust it.

MS ELAINE SUN, a poodle owner in Wuxi, a city near Shanghai.

Ms Ren is not the only Chinese pet owner taking action. Mr Austin Chen, a Guangzhou resident, has been stocking up for his orange tabby, Fera, in case his US brand of cat food is next to be hit.

"It is the first time," he said, "that I realised the trade war deeply influenced my life and my cat."

Choosy pet owners like Mr Chen are a small minority in China, but their pain could presage broader tensions as the trade war deepens.

China's retaliatory tariffs have made imported soya beans and meat more expensive in a country that depends on imports for many of its food needs.

Attitudes in China could harden if a lengthy trade war leads to higher prices, but it could also put pressure on Beijing to win concessions or cave in - and both options carry big risks for China's leaders.

Pet food may seem an unlikely target in a trade war, but it shows how creative Chinese officials must become if they want to hit back at President Donald Trump.

China does not import enough to match dollar-for-dollar Washington's tariffs on more than US$250 billion (S$346 billion) worth of Chinese goods.

Instead, Beijing has taken a series of unorthodox moves, such as blocking a huge corporate takeover and tying up imported cars in administrative knots at China's docks.

Pets in China have become big business.

Soaring real estate prices and other costs have made it prohibitively expensive for many city dwellers to start families. Many have chosen to buy animals instead.

According to China Securities, a Beijing brokerage, pet spending in China has surged more than eightfold since 2010, to about US$25 billion a year, mostly on cats and dogs.

The market is still growing.

China has four times as many people as the United States, but roughly half the number of household pets, with 51 million dogs and 41 million cats.

And many people simply do not trust Chinese pet food.

In a country where even infant formula and childhood vaccines have had quality problems, pet owners often view imported products as safer.

Regardless of where it comes from, some owners like Ms Ren try the pet food themselves.

If it smells or tastes like rotting fish, decomposing chicken or something unpleasant, they will not let their pets take a bite.

"If dog food is not fresh, it tastes very much like stale cooking oil with fat," said Mr Ruan Qionghao, another Shanghai owner of a golden retriever, named Mixiu.

There are no publicly available, peer-reviewed studies of problematic pet food in China.

But Chinese consumers are wary of a wide range of domestic products, particularly after six children were killed and nearly 300,000 sickened by contaminated infant formula a decade ago, and nearly a million childhood vaccines were exposed this summer as defective.

 

"Domestic pet food is poisonous," said Ms Elaine Sun, a poodle owner in Wuxi, a city near Shanghai. "No matter how good they say it is, I will never trust it."

Dr Ding Limin, a pet nutrition expert at China Agricultural University and member of a government-affiliated commission on animal feed standards, said that it was little different in nutrition and quality from imported pet food.

Trade policies have long affected China's pet food scene.

Beijing bans wholesale imports of pet food with beef or chicken, citing fears of mad cow disease or bird flu, though it loosened rules two years ago to allow imports to be sold online.

Partly as a result of the restrictions, China last year exported US$148 million worth of pet food to the US but imported only US$6.5 million worth of it.

China also began allowing some wholesale imports of US beef for people last year.

Industry officials in China say importing pet food from the US has become tougher since May, and that the trade war is to blame.

EPet, a Chinese online marketplace, said mid-last month that import controls were tightening and officials were carrying out more inspections.

"Sadly, our pet food industry has been influenced by the trade storm," the company said.

Mr Roy Cheng, an import agent in Shanghai for American pet food, said his products were inspected at least six times in the past two months. Before the trade war, inspections took place less than once a month, he said.

"I am turning myself into a politician, watching trade war news every day, even though I only sell pet food," he said.

NYTIMES

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2018, with the headline 'Trade war's accidental casualty - pets'. Print Edition | Subscribe