Irish beef takes starring role at Asia’s biggest food and drink fair

Beef imported to China expected to grow by 76% in coming decade

Set atop a bed of green foliage, beside a pyramid of aubergines and carrots in a round refrigerated container, Irish beef made an auspicious debut at the SIAL food and drink fair in Shanghai this week.

Dozens of food buyers and consumers gathered around the glass container, which has come to China after authorities lifted a ban on Irish beef exports to China imposed after the mad cow disease crisis.

Ireland’s agriculture sector has a strong trading link with China – agri-food exports to China have increased roughly five-fold from around €200 million in 2010 to about €1 billion last year.

But beef exports are particularly to the fore at the moment, as the State is the first EU country to gain access to China and the market is being viewed as a possible hedge to Britain in the event of exports there being hit by Brexit.


"The scale of SIAL is staggering – it must be several Croke Parks, with 70 different countries and 110,000 buyers expected. Any country that takes itself seriously has to be here," said Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed.

In recent years, the beef market has been growing steadily and there is an obvious shortage in supply for the domestic market. It is estimated that in 2027, beef imports will be 1.22 million tons. Based on the 695,000 tons of imported beef in 2017 in China, in the next 10 years, China’s imported beef will increase by 76 per cent.

Uruguay was the biggest exporter of beef to China in 2017, followed by Brazil and Australia.

According to statistics from the Chinese customs, the import of frozen beef surged in the first quarter of this year, climbing 32.2 per cent to 212,000 tons.

"The beef that I've heard about from Ireland is steak, and I will definitely try it if it is available in restaurants," said Shanghai resident and self-professed foodie Amy Feng.

“If I cook beef at home, I don’t think I will buy imported meat from anywhere unless it is the same price as the Chinese ones.”

Irish stand

There are eight Irish beef and pork processors with stands on the Ireland pavilion, including ABP Food Group, AgraKepak, Ashbourne Meat Processors, Dawn Meats, Dawn Pork and Bacon, Foyle Food Group, Liffey Meats, QK Meats and Rosderra Irish Meats.

Kepak said on Thursday that it had signed a five-year distribution contract worth €35 million with China-based Esen Agro Group. This follows a €50 million restaurant supply deal signed by ABP on Wednesday.

Kepak said the deal would see it creating 25 new jobs at its McCarren Meats facility in Cavan, bringing the total employed there to 295.

Mr Creed said it was helpful for Irish companies to emphasise the fact that the Republic is remaining in the EU.

"They come to invest in Europe because there's access to a market that's 500 million people. We're hearing it repeated again and again and again that our future, notwithstanding the difficulty that Brexit holds for us, is remaining in the European Union. The market access we're getting here in China and the bilaterals with Japan and Mexico, we can only dream of those if we were not in Europe," he added.

"There is certainty in Ireland, and that's the message we're bringing." EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan congratulated Ireland on getting access for Irish beef and foresaw great things for Irish beef in the market.

"You have a growing middle class population here in mainland China. Ireland has a strong relationship to the environment and food safety," he told The Irish Times. "There are great promotion opportunities here and it's very timely."

Cormac Healy, senior director of Meat Industry Ireland, is looking for further opportunities in China.

“This is a market of serious scale and if Ireland is to really capture the potential here, we need to get all our meat plants approved. MII will continue to work with the department of agriculture and member companies to increase the number of processing plants cleared to export to China,” said Mr Healy.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing