Securing a route back to the Chinese market for our beef exports is in the “hands of the Chinese” according to Minister of State with Responsibility for New Market Developement, Martin Heydon.

It has been 14 months since our exports ceased due to the discovery of an atypical case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a dead cow.

But every effort, in the intervening period, is being made to reopen that export route again, the minister told Agriland.

Most recently, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, raised the issue with his counterpart on a trip to China in May.

“And we followed up on that with some further correspondence with the Chinese body that deals with these measures,” Minister Heydon said.

“Myself and Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, recently met with the Chinese ambassador to Ireland, He Xiangdong, and we have had ongoing diplomatic contact between Ireland and China on the matter.

“This is, ultimately, a decision for the Chinese but we would love to get our beef back into China as quickly as possible.”

Beef questions answered

The minister explained that when the atypical BSE case arose last year – which has been recognised as something that can happen and has no safety risks, he said – there was a protocol put in place by the Chinese authorities.

“We met that protocol, we voluntarily withdrew our beef from the Chinese market, as per that protocol, and then we engaged with China fully. 

“We have done everything that has been asked of us, we have answered questions, and we would be keen to regain access for our beef to China, and they know that. We have clearly indicated that in diplomatic terms.”

Dependency on UK market

The UK’s recently published National Food Strategy has recommended a reduction in consumption of meat by 30% by 2030, to help achieve environmental and health targets.

Not only that, but the recent free-trade agreement reached between the UK and Australia could have serious impacts on exports to our nearest neighbour.

With our dependency on the UK market, how much of a concern are such developments?

“This something that my department has worked on for some time now – our over-dependence on the UK market.

“We want to find new markets, added-value markets, and we need to diversify our dependency on the UK market.

“At the same time, we do need to mind the UK market that we have because we have a very strong position in the UK marketplace, and a lot of Bord Bia’s research would tell you that the British consumer trusts Irish produce more than any other foreign food import. 

“We have a very trusted place with the British consumer and that is of great value.

“Notwithstanding that, there are threats in terms of consumer behaviour, other competition, and other trade agreements.

“So what I am doing is really important in terms of gaining access to new markets such as South Korea, which is an ongoing process; we have the addition of increased market access to Japan for our minced beef and burgers which was a positive development earlier this year.

“And we are looking at other markets too, to diversify our options and not have the level of dependency on our near neighbours, as we have in the past, while still recognising the important market that the UK is for us.”