A SERIES of Irish food and agricultural business deals worth millions of euro to rural Ireland got the country's largest ever trade mission off to a flying start in Beijing.
The Chinese are keen to lock in Irish suppliers of everything from bull semen to infant milk formula, but it was the confirmation that the Chinese want to lift bans on Irish beef that was the biggest coup for the 100-strong Irish delegation.
"Today has been great. China's food safety authority, the ASQIQ, who are a very serious and uncompromising body, have now decided to go with us," Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said yesterday following a series of meetings with Chinese officials.
"They basically said that they like us and trust Ireland. We have now moved to the final stage where a big team of Chinese vets and inspectors will visit in early December, and it's possible that this market could be open in the first half of next year," he said.
The minister added that this was a very exciting time for the Irish food sector, with the possibility of Irish beef being in the US market by Christmas.
Only seven countries in the world currently have access to the Chinese market for beef, and Ireland is the only country in Europe to have succeeded in getting the Chinese authorities to seriously consider opening their market for beef.
Any increase in demand for food by China's 1.35 billion population has massive implications for global supplies.
Beef imports alone are expected to rise by one million tonnes over the next five years. This is double Ireland's entire annual export volume.
Irish pork exports to China have doubled in the five years since the ban was lifted six years ago. The pork trade with China is believed to be worth €40m a year to Irish processors.
However, good news was not limited to the meat trade, with Carlow machinery manufacturer Keenan securing a €1m initial order with Chinese distributors for their feeder wagons.
"We believe that this will result in €7m of business for us over three years. After that, who knows, but we're hopeful that China will rapidly become as important a market as France where we sell €15m of machinery annually.
That's one third of our current turnover so it's a big deal for us," said company chairman, Gerard Keenan.
Mr Keenan have also teamed up with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science and UCD to provide technical training, knowledge transfer and on-farm advice to Chinese farmers. Improving the efficiency of the millions of Chinese farmers was one of the key aims outlined in China's latest Five Year Plan.
Mr Coveney will host Ireland's largest ever stand at China Seafood and Fisheries Expo in Qindao tomorrow.