In just two months, the value of Irish beef exports to China has fallen by 71pc as coronavirus crisis hit demand in the world's No. 2 beef market after the United States.
CSO trade data seen by the Farming Independent shows that Irish monthly beef exports to China peaked in December at 1,300t worth €7.5m. However, by February of this year exports had fallen to just 413t worth €2m.
Irish beef exports to China increased significantly in 2019 with the first year of full trading by Irish beef exporters seeing volumes reach 12,000t worth €31m, according to Bord Bia. At the same time, beef exports to Hong Kong more than trebled in value, to €27m.
However now a sharp slowdown in business in China's once-booming hotpot chains, barbecue restaurants and steakhouses is hitting the global beef industry hard, after top exporters had ramped up supplies to meet surging Chinese demand.
China is the world's No. 2 beef market after the United States and fastest-growing, thanks to rising incomes that have driven imports up at least 20% a year for the last five years.
Though the Chinese are much bigger consumers of pork, the viral African swine fever epidemic, first detected in August 2018, slashed the country's pig herd by around 50pc and also got consumers switching to more beef.
Imports in 2019 hit 1.7 million tonnes, up 60pc on the prior year, with about 70pc consumed in restaurants, according to analyst and industry source estimates.
Imports were flooding in just as the flu-like virus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, coinciding with the country's most important holiday and a major shortage of pork.
Much of those are still sitting in cold storage after many restaurants were forced to close for at least six weeks from early February amid lockdowns in some cites and widespread travel restrictions.
Foodservice sector income plunged 43pc in the first two months of the year to 419.4 billion yuan ($59.6 billion), statistics bureau data showed last month.
Beef demand from restaurants has probably dropped 70-80pc, Ambrose Cheung, Asia commercial manager at major Australian processor Bindaree Beef told Reuters.
Though retailers are purchasing much more, consumers typically buy cheaper cuts such as brisket and shin shank and eat less overall when cooking or ordering home than when they go out, Cheung said.
"Not many people order a tenderloin online," he said.
Exporters in Argentina, one of China's top suppliers last year, say March beef exports slumped to around 15pc of levels seen late last year.
Demand could remain tepid until June, said Bindaree's Cheung, with people still wary about eating together.