BEIJING (AFP) - China has removed an almost 13-year-old ban on some US beef products, its quality inspection regulator said Thursday (Sept 22).
A ban on imports of "American bone-in beef and boneless beef for cattle under 30 months" has been lifted effective immediately, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said, according to a document posted on its official website.
The Asian giant stopped most beef imports from the US over a decade ago after mad cow disease was found in Washington state in December 2003.
The announcement comes after years of delays in which US producers and trade officials expected restrictions to be lifted, and years after China said in 2006 that imports of some beef products would resume, though this never occurred.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the decision signalled Beijing's desire to improve commercial ties with the US, the Wall Street Journal reported, and it coincided with the announcement that a Chinese bank had been approved to clear transactions in the yuan currency in New York.
Speaking with US business groups in New York on Tuesday, Li had implied that the ban would soon be lifted, the Wall Street Journal reported, saying: "We also recognise that the United States has very good beef, so why should we deny Chinese customers this choice?"
China is already the world's largest consumer of pork, and demand for beef is surging as its burgeoning middle class adds more meat to its diet.
Before the ban was lifted many Chinese shoppers bought smuggled US beef on online portals, state media reported last year, with a US official saying a "huge amount" evaded import restrictions.
US producers had long complained of the restrictions, which were in place while China's cattle herds grew over the last decade.
Beijing has also kept in place bans on imports from the European Union due to mad cow disease concerns 16 years ago, but is reportedly in talks with Ireland to lift restrictions sometime this year.
Annual beef consumption in China has risen to 3.8kg per capita in 2015, according to OECD data, up from less than 3kg in 2005.
By 2025, an additional 2.2 million tonnes will be needed to satisfy booming Chinese domestic demand, according to research by Netherlands-based Rabobank, with importers supplying 20 per cent of the meat.
"Beef prices in China have been increasing and are now more than four times higher than in 2000," it said, noting that Chinese consumers have a "higher tolerance" for soaring beef prices.
China was the second-largest importer of American agricultural products in the world in 2015, according to the US Department of Agriculture, having grown more than 200 per cent in the past decade to total more than US$20 billion.