Taoiseach’s letter ‘positive’ but ‘not guaranteed’ to allow Irish beef regain access to China

Additional reporting by Charles O’Donnell 

While a letter written by Taoiseach Micheál Martin to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is a “positive” development, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue reiterates that there are no guarantees of regaining access for Irish beef to China.

Last May, Irish beef exports to China were temporarily suspended due to the discovery of atypical BSE in a cow in Co. Tipperary.

In a letter this week, dated January 20, the Taoiseach asked for the temporary suspension to be lifted as a matter of urgency.

“The Chinese market has been closed to Irish beef exports for over six months now, based on a single isolated case of atypical BSE last summer,” the letter to the Chinese premier reads.

“The details of this case were fully explained at the time and further clarified in subsequent correspondence, which emphasised that there is no public health risk associated with this isolated and rare occurrence.

“Irish beef has proved very popular with Chinese consumers. The quality of the product is excellent, the partnership with Chinese distributors has been positive, and the supply-chains have been safe and reliable.

“Our industry has worked very hard and formed very strong trading relationships with Chinese businesses. I value this relationship highly and I ask, therefore, that this temporary suspension be lifted as a matter of urgency.”

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue said that this development is very welcome and important “in the government’s commitment to reestablishing the beef trade to China”.

“I commend the work of An Taoiseach and those in my own department for working on this important step,” he said.

While we are not guaranteed to regain access for Irish beef to China, we must view it as a positive. The Chinese market has proven itself in being an important one for Irish beef and gives our sector further competition for our high-quality beef.

“Regaining access for our beef to China would certainly help underpin beef prices and farmer incomes, which are both critical to me as minister.”

In the letter to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the Taoiseach also refers to the visit made to a family farm in Co. Mayo by Premier Li and his wife in 2015, where they “saw at first-hand how our farming families through the generations have worked in harmony with nature”.

“So much progress has been achieved since then and our economic relationship has gone from strength to strength.

“Despite the challenges of the past year caused by the global pandemic, we have maintained strong collaborative ties.

“The assistance Ireland received in rapidly sourcing PPE and other supplies from China last spring was greatly appreciated.”

Department applies to downgrade Ireland’s BSE risk status to ‘negligible’

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has applied to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to have Ireland’s BSE risk status downgraded from ‘controlled’ to the lowest status of ‘negligible’.

A department spokesperson said that the OIE will consider the application in May this year.

The OIE has a complicated system of determining if a country is fit for negligible risk status. However, it is worth noting that ‘atypical’ BSE does not count towards determining BSE risk categories.