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One year on, China still has a ban on Irish beef - but for Irish farmers, a bigger problem may be coming down the tracks

Beef farmers are not unduly worried about the China ban right now – but it could be a different story if the UK does a trade deal with Australia.

IT IS JUST over a year since Irish beef exports to China were suspended following the discovery of an atypical BSE case in the national herd.

The temporary suspension in May 2020 was a major setback for the beef sector, given the time and energy that was invested over the previous decade in securing access to the Chinese market.

A year on though, farmers could be forgiven for forgetting the loss of Far Eastern beef sales. Cattle prices have surged to a three-year high thanks to buoyant global demand, with quotes from slaughter plants improving by 60c/kg or €200-250 per animal since January. 

Food export sales are habitually volatile, however, and the recent spike in cattle prices cannot conceal the significance of Ireland’s exclusion from the world’s second largest beef import market.

In 2020 total Chinese beef imports were a massive 1.7 million tonnes, and levels are forecast to increase further this year. Securing a foothold once more in this market is considered essential for the long-term viability of the Irish beef industry.

Irish beef exports to China started in 2018, following a sustained diplomatic and industry effort, when two slaughter plants were cleared to ship beef to the country.

Hong Kong and other Far East markets have traditionally provided established outlets for bovine offal – hooves, tongues and other low-value produce – but gaining access to China for high-grade beef cuts was a more difficult endeavour.

Strict assurances on quality controls and animal health procedures were required to assuage Chinese concerns that the BSE scare of the 1990s was in the past.

Following the 2018 breakthrough, exports to China recorded impressive growth in 2019 as over 20 factories were certified for the trade. In excess of 12,000 tonnes was exported as a result, with the business worth almost €40 million.

Although the Chinese sales were small relative to Ireland’s overall beef trade – which totalled 560,000 tonnes in 2020 and generated €2.1 billion in export revenues – the market was considered to have excellent growth potential.

Some industry sources even suggested that China would eventually take up to 40,000 tonnes of Irish beef, with sales topping €150 million.

Unfortunately, the ‘atypical BSE case’ last May has put plans for ramping up beef exports to China firmly on the back burner for now.

However, the importance of re-opening the Chinese market was illustrated by recent reports of a proposed free trade deal between the UK and Australia.

Any such agreement would inevitably include increased access for cheap Australian beef to the UK market. This has worrying implications for Irish beef exports to Britain. The UK takes close to half Ireland’s beef exports each year, with the trade worth close to €1 billion.

Increased competition from Australian beef – in addition to American, Brazilian and New Zealand meat – would inevitably hit Irish prices and margins.

While the Irish dairy sector has sought to proactively reduce its reliance on the British market since the Brexit referendum by diversifying into continental-style cheeses, the beef industry remains hugely dependent on UK sales.

However, expanding exports into emerging markets such as China offers a way of “Brexit-proofing the Irish beef industry to some degree”, one source said.

The beef factory representative body, Meat Industry Ireland (MII), and farmer organisations such as the IFA and ICMSA, have all called on Agriculture Minister, Charlie McConalogue, to prioritise the restoration of access to China for Irish beef.

Irish efforts on this front received good news on the double recently. The OIE – the animal health equivalent of the World Health Organisation (WHO) – confirmed that Ireland had regained its negligible risk status for BSE.

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In addition, China’s main source of beef imports, Argentina, announced that it was suspending all meat exports for 30 days in an effort to curtail spiralling domestic prices.

Whether these developments prompt a change in China’s position on Irish beef is as yet unclear.

Beef farmers will not be unduly worried about China in the short-term. But, then, markets and prices are currently strong.

It could be a different story should the beef trade turn sour.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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