Just-released Chinese trade data reveals that China’s imports of pork and pork products reached unprecedented levels for any single country in history in 2008, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF).

Based on import totals from China and Hong Kong, the country imported 4.2 billion pounds of pork and pork products last year. Included were nearly 2.6 billion pounds of pork variety meats and 1.7 billion pounds of pork cuts.

That data suggests that China’s imports easily eclipsed the previous single-year record of 2.2 billion pounds of pork imported by Japan in 2005.

“The volume demonstrates the huge influence China can have on global markets when supply and demand become imbalanced,” says Joel Haggard, senior vice president of USMEF’s Asia Pacific region. “The import volume, though huge, represents less than 5% of China’s consumption.”

Total U.S. pork and pork product exports to China and Hong Kong in 2008 are estimated at 851 million pounds worth nearly $700 million.

It is unlikely that China’s pork imports this year will match last year’s record, Haggard says. Increased industry profitability, combined with a range of subsidies for hog production, has resulted in a substantial expansion of China’s herd and lower hog and pork prices. Recently, live market hog prices in China averaged $84/cwt., 25% below earlier record prices.

The National Bureau of Statistics reports that by the end of the third quarter, China’s live hog inventory had increased 6.6% from year-earlier figures, and the sow population increased 12.4%. Total hogs marketed increased 5.8% and meat production rose about 6%.

Although the early spring period usually marks the low point in consumer demand, USMEF says reports of serious respiratory disease outbreaks could be adding a bearish tone to the market.

That said, USMEF expects imported variety meat demand to hold steady through 2009; U.S. pork products face stiffer competition from domestic supplies.