A government task force on economic intelligence will go after profiteers, price manipulators, smugglers and hoarders, amid soaring prices of agricultural products in local markets. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte has approved a plan to boost pork imports to counter soaring prices amid an African Swine Fever (ASF) outbreak, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Alexei B. Nograles said on Thursday.

In a press briefing, Mr. Nograles said the President approved during Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) recommendation to expand the minimum access volume (MAV) allocation for pork imports.

“As for the projections of pork supplies for this year, the DA estimates that with a demand of 1,618,355 metric tons and the projections of the 2021 supply, we will need to begin the process of reviewing the MAV… Given that the current MAV is 54,210 metric tons, the DA has recommended studying that the MAV be expanded just enough to cover the projected shortfall for the year,” he said in a Palace briefing.

As of Feb. 1, the national average farmgate prices of hogs is now at P171 per kilo, the DA said.

The expansion of MAV will just be “a temporary solution” to curb the rise in pork prices, Mr. Nograles said. Pork imports under the MAV enter the country at a lower tariff of 30%.

“The agency’s main priority is to help local hog raisers,” he said.

The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) expressed support for a “calibrated” pork importation program until the ASF outbreak is controlled and local hog raisers can resume operations.

“The risk of contamination and spread of the virus is really high because there is no available vaccine yet for ASF. A calibrated importation program is an option the government can consider to secure supply and bring down the price of pork,” PCCI President Benedicto V. Yujuico said in a statement on Thursday.

At the same time, Mr. Nograles said the President approved the agency’s recommendation to create an “economic intelligence” task force to go after smugglers, profiteers and hoarders of agricultural products.

Co-chaired by the DA and the Department of Trade and Industry, the group will be composed of the Philippine Competition Commission, Bureau of Customs, Department of Justice, Department of Interior and Local Government, Philippine National Police, National Security Council, and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency.

“Pork prices should have already gone down after the holidays, but they did not. Clearly, some persons along the food value chain are making a lot of money,” Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar said in a statement.

Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra said he will direct the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to probe price manipulators and hoarders.

“Pursuant to that manifestation, the DOJ will issue a department order directing the NBI to gather actionable information that may be used to run after hoarders and profiteers reportedly manipulating the prices of pork, vegetables, and other basic foodstuff,” he told reporters via Viber.

Senator Francis N. Pangilinan said the DA should tap the NBI and the PNP’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) to identify wholesalers behind the manipulation of pork supply.

“We raised this already. We have already written a letter to Secretary Dar to ask for the list of cold storage facilities used by meat importers. They should know these facilities and should deputize the NBI and CIDG to check,” Mr. Pangilinan said at an online briefing on Thursday.

Mr. Duterte on Monday signed an executive order imposing price caps on some pork and poultry products sold in Metro Manila for 60 days.

The implementation of the price ceiling on pork and chicken products will take effect on Feb. 8 (Monday) to give time for industry players to adjust.

Prices soared due to transportation costs as Metro Manila markets sourced meat from other islands after hogs across Luzon were culled due to the ASF outbreak.

Mr. Pangilinan said the implementation of a price ceiling on pork and chicken products is just a temporary measure for consumers.

“The measure is only for two months. It is better if we find another solution. Price ceiling alone will not work if we don’t act fast and augment supply,” the senator said. —  with Revin Mikhael D. Ochave, Jenina P. Ibañez and Vann Marlo M. Villegas