€100m export market for Irish beef in China 'may just be tip of iceberg'
Efforts under way to expand access to five more factories
A €100m export market for frozen Irish beef in China may be just the tip of the iceberg as consumption is growing rapidly among the expanding Asian middle class.
Ireland's meat processors and Agriculture Minister Michael Creed highlighted the strong potential of the changing consumers' appetites in the Far East, where beef imports are expected to double by 2020.
After years of negotiations and inspections, Ireland has become the first European beef exporter to secure access to China.
"For beef, the door has now been opened and there is a real opportunity for the industry to build on this," said Mr Creed, who is travelling with a trade mission to the massive SIAL food exhibition in Shanghai next month.
So far three Irish beef processing factories - the Goodman-owned ABP Clones in Co Monaghan, Slaney Foods in Co Wexford, and Foyle Meats in Co Donegal - have been approved to ship frozen boneless beef after meeting the criteria following strict audits.
Meat Industry Ireland (MII), which represents the country's valuable processing industry, described it as an "important breakthrough" after years of intensive efforts.
However, farm lobby groups say it must deliver monies to farmers on the ground, as beef farmers struggle with low incomes.
It also is being viewed as a potential 'safety net' for the industry. With Brexit looming, efforts have been made to diversify into new markets. Currently 50pc of Ireland's €2.5bn beef exports go to the UK.
MII's Cormac Healy said the first group of plants was expected to be in a position to begin trade with China in the very near future. However, work was still continuing to open up the new market to a further five plants which have already been audited including ABP Nenagh, Kepak Clonee, Liffey Meats, Dawn Meats Charleville and Kildare Chilling.
In total there are 25 plants throughout Ireland that have sought access to the market.
Processors and Mr Creed were reluctant to set a firm figure on the potential value of lucrative contracts to the region. Mr Creed insisted he was "not going to put a figure on how much Ireland will export to China". However, his predecessor Simon Coveney had estimated the market could be worth around €100m a year after the lifting of the BSE ban by Chinese authorities in 2015.
The Goodman-owned ABP has already signed a €50m three-year deal to supply beef to Chinese restaurant chain Wowprime that was awaiting access to get the green-light.
ABP said it looked forward to beginning the contract and "pursuing" other opportunities that may arise in the market.
The processors also said they would continue to push for access for other products such as meat on the bone plus the valuable 'fifth quarter', or offal.
Bord Bia's Tara McCarthy said it has been actively planning for this access through its Shanghai office and it was testimony to the "reputation" of Irish beef.
Total Irish agri-food exports to China have more than doubled over the last five years as they moved close to a billion euro last year. Dairy exports have led the way, with pigmeat also taking a slice of the market.
However, the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) said to capture a substantial market share in the Chinese beef market, it is very important that eligibility is secured for all Irish beef products and not just frozen boneless beef, and that all export beef plants are cleared.
IFA beef chair Angus Woods highlighted the low income levels on beef farms, as the lobby group pointed out it must deliver for farmers.
Pat McCormack, president of the farm group ICMSA, said it must "benefit the people producing the actual food".
"New markets without better margins for the producers were ultimately of little benefit."
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