Suspension of Irish beef exports to China after BSE case disappointing, says Tánaiste

Speaking in Shanghai, Micheál Martin says he is confident ban will be lifted within a few months

Tánaiste Micheál Martin has described as disappointing the suspension of Irish beef exports to China following the discovery of an atypical case of BSE.

Mr Martin, who is in China for a four-day official visit, said the fact that the case was found during a routine Department of Agriculture check demonstrated Ireland’s bona fides.

“This has not entered the food chain, it was a 10 and a half year old cow. But the protocol between Ireland and China is very clear, you notify voluntary suspension of trade. That is what we have done,” he said.

“There will be an epidemiological assessment made of this. That has to happen.”


Irish beef returned to Chinese supermarket shelves early this year after a three-year suspension due to a case of atypical BSE.

The General Administration of Customs of China (GACC) will conduct the epidemiological assessment of the latest case but Mr Martin was confident the ban would be lifted within a few months.

“Given the manner in which we have dealt with it, we would hope that it could be dealt with expeditiously,” he said.

Irish beef exports to China were worth almost €40 million in 2019 before the previous suspension and Bord Bia was working to regain market share in the face of increased competition from countries such as Brazil.

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has pointed out that the animal at the centre of the BSE test had not been destined for the Chinese market.

Atypical BSE was something that happened sporadically in animals and it did not present a food safety issue, he told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland.

“We have the highest of testing standards anywhere in the world, here in Ireland, and we have the lowest risk rating possible from the World Organisation for Animal Health as well. So this is something that happens sporadically.

“We export to 70 countries around the world and it only impacts on one of those markets we export to specifically because of the export protocol we have in place with the Chinese market.”

A part of the export protocol with China was presenting epidemiological reports, but it was important to point out this animal wasn’t destined for the Chinese market, he said.

Real potential

“It was identified in standard testing procedures, but under a protocol with the Chinese government, we have to notify of any such cases. So that’s not something we expect to have an impact in relation to our wider export levels. China is currently a small part of our overall beef exports, but an important one because we see real potential in that market in the years ahead. So we will work now with the Chinese government to seek to have it reopened as promptly as possible.”

Food safety was something that was taken very seriously in Ireland, he added. “We’re an exporting country with 90 per cent of our food being exported abroad. So that safety aspect is very, very key,” he said.

Mr McConalogue said he hoped that matter could be dealt with in a matter of months and that the export market to China could reopen within a matter of months, while it had taken years when a similar situation had occurred in 2020.

“I would be hoping on the basis that we’ve gone through this process very recently, that it won’t take the same amount of time again. But this is obviously something that is a matter for the Chinese government. We will, as we did last time, work to make sure that we make ourselves available.”

Meanwhile, the chair of the Irish Farming Association’s livestock committee, Brendan Golden, has called for political pressure to be maintained to swiftly resolve the halting of beef exports to China.


“Everything seems to be going against us at the moment because we’ve been dealing with very high costs and everything for over the last year or so,” he told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland. “To hear this news was really disappointing yesterday. But I hope it can be resolved quickly and I hope that the Chinese respond quicker this time round.

“We had this same thing happen back in 2020, and it was only last January that there was a resumption of the market there,” he added. “The key point here is back in 2019, the market was building and we were getting more sustainable. So it was climbing. And again, it was like starting from scratch again this spring.”

Mr Golden said the fact that the case of BSE had been caught showed that the surveillance systems monitoring cattle were effective. The case that had been detected was a strain of BSE that did not have any risk to humans or public health, he insisted.

Asked if farmers would be seeking compensation, Mr Golden said that the amount in relation to these exports would be very small.

During a visit to Beijing in May, Mr McConalogue described the Chinese market as critically important for the development of Ireland’s food sector.

“China is a market with the largest population and an ever-increasing middle class who are driving increased demand for high quality food and beverages, which the Irish agri-food sector excels at producing,” he said.

“The potential for growing the value of our trade with the Chinese market, in particular for beef exports, is critically important to the development ambitions of the sector, which ultimately supports the sustainability of our family farm model.”

A spokesman for Meat Industry Ireland said the incident showed the inspection system was fit for purpose. Meat Industry Ireland also said the key issue was to get the export beef market to China reopened.

Beef shipments to China were worth €38.8 million in 2019 but were suspended in May 2020 after a case of BSE was detected in Ireland. Exports resumed in January 2003.

China is one of the world’s fastest-growing regions for consumption of beef with sales from the USA to China reaching €2.12 billion in the first 10 months of 2022. Annual imports to China from New Zealand also soared in 2022 with an increase of almost 91 per cent.

Exports of frozen boneless beef to Hong Kong, which operates as a special administrative region with different market access rules, continued through 2020 and were worth €45m in 2021. It is understood that Hong Kong is not affected by the current suspension in trade.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times

Vivienne Clarke

Vivienne Clarke is a reporter

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist