The Chinese food safety authority, the ASQIQ, agreed to send a team of veterinary inspectors to audit Irish meat export plants and systems in early December, with a view to opening up the vast Chinese market to Irish product in 2015.
On what was the first day of a five-day trade mission to China, Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, also announced that technical inspections would commence to prepare the way for Irish sheep exports to China.
The world’s second largest economy continues to become ever more reliant on beef imports as the 1.35bn Chinese population sees incomes more than double since 2007.
It has long-running bans on beef imports from all but six countries – Australia, Uruguay, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina and Costa Rica. However, Ireland is one of just three countries that China is currently working with at the moment with a view to opening up to beef – the other two are Canada and US.
However, huge amounts of smuggled beef are channelled in through Hong Kong, bringing total annual imports to an estimated 900,000t – almost twice Ireland’s entire output.
While Irish companies are already supplying product, especially offal, through these ‘grey’ channels, industry sources suggest that gaining official access to the market could double returns.
Market analysts, Deloitte, estimate that the move could give the Irish beef sector a €15m annual boost.
Beef consumption in China has been growing at close to 20pc a year, and experts expect it to continue increase sharply, with average annual intake still close to just 5kg per head.
Minister Coveney, who is leading one of the biggest ever delegations of Irish food industry leaders on a whistle-stop tour of China, described the announcement by the Chinese authorities as a major breakthrough.
“It’s only a matter of time before China becomes Ireland’s second most important market after Britain,” Minister Coveney predicted.
“Demand for beef in China is expected to grow by 1m tonnes over the next five years and I am determined that Irish farmers and processers should have access to this critically important market,” he added.
The trade mission to China will cover five major cities in five days, with a total of 50 key engagements. Some 37 Irish companies are represented, including ABP, Kepak, Dawn Meats, Slaney Foods, Irish Country Meats, Rosderra, Glanbia, the Irish Dairy Board, Dairygold and Lakeland Dairies. Five state agencies and many seafood companies are also part of a major drive to raise the profile of Ireland and it’s key exports to the Asian giant.
Irish food and drink exports to China have increased five-fold since 2008, and are expected to be well over €500m for 2014.
This latest trade mission follows on the first food delegation’s visit in April 2012.
Since then links between China and Ireland have been strengthened by reciprocal visits from the Chinese President, Xi Jinping.
During the week, the delegation will also be looking to build on the rapidly growing volume of infant formula and dairy exports from Ireland to China.
Irish dairy exports have doubled in the last two years to €270m last year.
Leaders of Irish dairy processors are pinning their hopes on China to market the expected surge in Irish milk output when quotas cease next April.
Minister Coveney will also open the largest ever Irish pavilion at the China Seafood and Fisheries Expo, which takes place in Qingdao later this week in an effort to further boost Irish seafood exports to the region that are already up 56pc during the first half of 2014 compared to the same period last year.
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