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China worries about social fallout of soybean oil price jump

BEIJING — Construction laborer Yi Jichun has never heard of Illinois or Iowa. But the migrant worker’s favorite comfort food comes straight out of the U.S. Midwest: soybean oil.

The world’s biggest consumers of edible oils, Chinese households have developed a taste for the stuff that would make a county fair fry cook proud. Be it a simple stir-fry, poached fish or deep-fried pork ribs, many Chinese diners love their grub covered in an oily sheen. Jugs of the golden liquid make popular gifts for Chinese New Year.

“Without the oil, it would taste too plain,” Yi said as he tucked into a lunch of sliced cucumbers and chicken drumsticks slathered with grease. “I wouldn’t want to finish it.”

And that has officials in Beijing worried. The worst U.S. drought in half a century is sending global grain prices soaring. The fallout is almost certain to be felt at dinner tables across China. The No. 1 foreign buyer of American soybeans, which are pressed into cooking oil and used for animal feed, China last year purchased about half of U.S. exports, more than $10.4 billion worth, according to the American Soybean Assn. China has also stepped up purchases of U.S. corn and wheat to feed the nation’s growing appetite.

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Poor U.S. harvests could fuel Chinese food inflation and social discontent. China has already begun tapping its grain reserves to ensure price stability. The government has ordered the nation’s biggest cooking oil producers twice in recent months to keep their prices in check. And it’s scouring the globe for alternative supplies.

It won’t be easy. More than two-thirds of cooking oil consumed in China comes from soybeans, and most of those soybeans are supplied by the U.S., according to Ma Wenfeng, an analyst with Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consultant Co. For now, Chinese consumers are bound to the fortunes of farmers in the American heartland.

“Soybean oil is the most important edible oil in China ... which makes us vulnerable to the drought” gripping the U.S., Ma said.

Retail prices have so far held steady. A standard 5-liter jug (1.32 gallons) of edible oil in China averages about $9.76 today, only 24 cents more than at the beginning of the year, Ma said.

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But that could change if the U.S. soybean harvest proves especially weak. Prices have risen about 40% since January to more than $16 a bushel.

Expensive grain means higher costs for animal feed, which leads to pricier meat, milk and eggs. That’s especially tough on people in developing countries. In China, consumers devote more than one-fifth of their monthly income to food, about three times more than their American counterparts, according to the USDA.

That’s “why authorities get concerned about social stability,” said Alistair Thornton, a Beijing-based analyst for IHS Global Insight. “Inflation has a long history of sparking discontent, so obviously it’s on the forefront of the Chinese leadership’s mind.”

Rising Chinese incomes in recent years have fueled a surge in meat consumption. Ditto for cooking oil, which a few decades ago was rationed with food stamps. Fan Zhihong, a nutrition expert at China Agricultural University in Beijing, said that’s leading to more obesity and heart disease.

“With economic development, people now have enough money for cooking oil. So they spoil themselves by using lots and making their food delicious,” Fan said. “They’ll even make a healthy dish of dark leafy greens into a fatty dish.”

An artery-clogging sample of Beijing’s local treats includes pai cha (crispy fried dough), xian bing (fried pancakes stuffed with pork and chives) and zha jiang mian (room temperature noodles topped with bean paste that often arrives submerged in half an inch of clear grease).

“It tastes better when it’s fried,” said Li Yuanying, 25, espousing a universal truth as she purchased deep-fried vegetable balls at aWal-Martcooked food counter in Beijing’s central business district.

Before her was a shiny selection of fried chilies, fried peanuts, fried crullers, fried pancakes and fried sesame balls. Nearby, stacked high against a wall, was an arsenal of cooking oils that would have made Southern cooking star Paula Deen feel right at home. In addition to soybean oil, there were large jugs of peanut, corn, rapeseed, palm, tea seed and fish oils.

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“I tell our board members that it reminds me of the cereal aisle in the U.S.,” said Paul Burke, the Beijing-based regional director of the U.S. Soybean Export Council.

Prices ranged from $7.40 for 5 liters of soybean oil to $19.35 for a blend of olive and sunflower oils. In the U.S., such quantities might be suitable for restaurant owners or, say, someone deep-frying a turkey. But in China, they’re a staple of the family grocery list.

“This may last me a little more than a month,” said a senior citizen who purchased soybean oil because it was still cheaper than many of the alternatives.

Rising prices could be one way to get Chinese consumers to scale back on greasy food. But some cooks said they’ll believe it when they see it.

“Everything needs oil,” said a Beijing steamed bun vendor who gave only his surname, Chen. “Especially the vegetarian buns. If you don’t put oil, it won’t taste good.”

david.pierson@latimes.com

Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.


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