China suspends imports from four Australian abattoirs as spat sours trade

A vendor waits for customers at a meat stall in a market in Shenyang on April 10, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - China has suspended imports from four of Australia's largest meat processors, Australia's trade minister said on Tuesday (May 12), as the trade of several key agricultural commodities suffers in the wake of souring ties.

The suspension comes after Australia last month called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus and just days after China proposed introducing an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley shipments.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham described the import suspension as "disappointing", but denied it was retribution by China over Australia's desire for a coronavirus inquiry.

China has rejected the need for an independent inquiry, and Beijing's ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, in late April said Chinese consumers could shun Australian goods in response to Canberra's support for such an investigation.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters that China's customs agency "continuously" found instances of the Australian companies having violated inspection and quarantine requirements and suspended the imports to "ensure the safety and health of Chinese consumers".

"(China's customs) notified the relevant Australian departments and required them to investigate completely the reason for the problem and to fix it," Zhao said during a daily briefing in Beijing. He added that the suspension was unrelated to the bilateral dispute over Covid-19.

Birmingham said Kilcoy Pastoral Company, JBS's Beef City and Dinmore plants, and the Northern Cooperative Meat Company have been banned from exporting beef to China due to issues with labelling and health certificates.

Labelling issues were also cited by Beijing when the same companies and two others lost their licences to ship beef to China in 2017 for several months.

"Thousands of jobs relate to these meat processing facilities. Many more farmers rely upon them in terms of selling cattle into those facilities," Birmingham told reporters in Canberra.

Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive Patrick Hutchinson said the companies made up approximately 20 per cent of Australian beef exports to China.

Australian meat exporters were aware of Chinese labelling requirements, Hutchinson said.

"Sometimes their tolerance levels go up and down. This time we have a situation where the tolerance is quite low for this issue".

Worth more than A$3 billion (S$2.76 billion), Chinese demand for Australian beef surged in 2019, fuelled by a growing middle class and as consumers switched to eating beef as pork availability fell during a swine fever outbreak which decimated Chinese hog herds.

China is by far Australia's largest trading partner, taking around 38 per cent of all exports in 2019, and the growing spat weighed on the Australian dollar on Tuesday.

"First barley now beef," said Stephen Innes, Chief Global Market Strategist at AxiCorp. "The Aussie has been under pressure most of the day due to tariff issues with China."

Australia was China's third largest beef supplier in 2019, after Brazil and Argentina. China's beef imports surged in the first quarter of 2020, despite a sharp slowdown in demand as consumers stay away from restaurants following the coronavirus outbreak.

"The impact on China is very small," said a Chinese beef buyer with a state-owned trading firm. "There are a lot of other countries exporting to China. There are no products (from Australia) that cannot be replaced."

"There's too much beef around and prices are weak," said the importer.

JBS said in a statement it was working with Australian officials "to understand the technical issues that China has raised" and would take corrective action.

Kilcoy Pastoral Company, its owner China's New Hope Group, and Northern Cooperative did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

China has committed to increase its purchases of US agriculture including beef under a phase one trade agreement with the administration of President Donald Trump.

US growers of corn and sorghum could also benefit should Australian barley exports to China be hit by a big tariff.

Barley, like corn and sorghum, is often used in animal feed in China.

Australia is China's top supplier of barley, sending it about A$1.5-A$2 billion of the grain each year.

China takes more than half of Australia's barley exports.

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