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How worried should Government be about Chinese ban on Irish beef?

Irish efforts to gain a foothold in south east Asian market hit by further blow

News of an atypical case of BSE in a cow in Ireland halting Irish beef exports to China will come as a blow to the Government as it tries to gain a greater foothold with the world’s largest importer of beef.

This is the second time in recent years that Irish exports to China have been halted due to an atypical case of the disease. The Department of Agriculture has been quick to point out that the case was only caught due to its “robust and effective” controls and that the cow in question was never destined for the food chain.

However, this will make little difference to the Chinese authorities, who previously took 2½ years and undertook several in-person inspections of Irish meat factories, before resuming Irish beef imports after the discovery of a similar case in May 2020.

Trust between beef factories and farmers is close to non-existent. It is understood that China has imported just over 2,000 tonnes of Irish beef this year - a tiny proportion of the 470,000 tonnes that Ireland has exported. Farmers will fear that factories might use the situation as an excuse to further pull down beef prices, especially given that they are traditionally buoyed at this time of year by Christmas demand.


Longterm, the reputational damage that the news of a BSE case will do to Irish trade in Asia cannot be underestimated. Where China leads, other Asian countries will follow.

For example, South Korea is the world’s fourth largest importer of beef, and Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue recently led a trade mission there trying to gain access for Irish beef to that market. This news is likely to halt that potential deal at a time when Ireland is desperately looking for more long-term markets.

While, in a European context, Ukraine might be considered Europe’s bread basket, Ireland is definitely Europe’s beef basket. The country is the largest exporter of beef in Europe, and the fifth largest in the world, sending more than 90 per cent of what is produced abroad.

However, Ireland is heavily reliant, and always has been, on the UK market, where almost half the value of all Irish beef exports, now worth some €2 billion, goes. In the aftermath of Brexit, the UK is keen to explore other territories for cheap beef. Australia and New Zealand have this year started sending beef to the UK under a new free trade agreement.

More broadly, the BSE case is bad news for a Government hoping to win farmers’ support in any upcoming election, with one expected in the next year, especially given the potential emergence of a new Farmer’s Party.

It also has to be understood that just the knowledge of having a trade route to China open helps support beef prices. The dependence on a vibrant export trade is felt keenly by Ireland’s 100,000 beef farmers, who remain some of the poorest within the farm community with average annual incomes of between €9,000 and €16,900.

It remains to be seen if the timing of the case will be helpful. Tánaiste Micheál Martin is currently in China promoting Irish trade, Mr McConalogue was doing likewise in South Korea last week, and Minister of State for Agriculture Martin Heydon is in the Philippines and Malaysia trying to increase Irish beef and dairy exports.

The timeframe for the recommencement of Irish beef exports to China is, however, ultimately a decision that rests with the authorities in Beijing.