China ends imports of beef from Australia amid COVID-19 dispute

This file photo shows beef for sale at a Walmart in Beijing, China, on September 23, 2019. (By Reuters)
China has halted its beef imports from Australia’s four largest meat processors, amid a dispute over the Australian government’s call for an investigation into the origin of the new coronavirus.

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said on Tuesday that the country’s Kilcoy Pastoral Company, JBS’s Beef City, Dinmore plants, and the Northern Cooperative Meat Company had been banned from exporting beef to China due to what he said were issues with labeling and health certificates.

The companies made up approximately 20 percent of Australian beef exports to China, according to the country’s Meat Industry Council Chief Executive Patrick Hutchinson.

“Thousands of jobs relate to these meat processing facilities. Many more farmers rely upon them in terms of selling cattle into those facilities,” Birmingham said, pointing out that Australian meat exporters had been aware of Chinese labeling requirements.

The call for a probe into the origin of the new coronavirus was first made by the United States, and Australia soon became the only other country to openly follow suit. The US President Donald Trump administration has been insinuating that the coronavirus was artificially synthesized at a lab in China and that Beijing failed to act promptly when its own outbreak began late last year.

China has denied both accounts and has reacted strongly to the US and Australia for making such allegations.

Beijing says import halt unrelated to virus dispute

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Tuesday denied that the halt to beef imports from Australia had anything to do with the coronavirus dispute.

Zhao said China’s customs agency had “continuously” found instances of the Australian companies violating 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,” he said.

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

Still, the Chinese official did criticize Canberra’s pursuit of a coronavirus inquiry for “political reasons.”

“Using the virus for political maneuver will only disrupt the epidemic cooperation. This will only be an unpopular move. China always believes that mutual respect and equality should be the basis for the development of bilateral relations,” Zhao said.

He said finding the origin of the virus “required the assessment of specialists and scientists.”

China also introduced a plan to impose an 80-percent tariff on Australian barley exports to the country days after Australia’s call for a probe.

Late last month, Beijing also lashed out at Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, saying he deserved “a slap in the face” for trying to blame the COVID-19 pandemic on China.

China also warned then that any political moves for an inquiry into its origins would trigger a travel and trade boycott.
Meanwhile, Australia’s beef exporters have censured the country’s officials for alienating China over the contagion’s origins.

“Some politicians in Australia say too much, they need to stop this rhetoric with China, especially criticism and speculation regarding the origin of the COVID 19 virus,” said Sam McNiven, the founder of Australia’s major beef producer, Providore Global, which exports to China, adding that Canberra should support its top trade partner, China.

Trade issues raise major concerns

China is Australia’s largest trading partner by far, taking around 38 percent of all exports in 2019, and the escalating dispute between the two countries impacted the Australian dollar on Tuesday.

Worth more than three billion Australian dollars (1.94 billion US dollars), China’s demand for Australian beef drastically climbed in 2019, fueled by a growing middle class and as consumers switched to eating beef since pork availability declined during a swine fever outbreak that decimated Chinese hog herds.

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 decline in demand as consumers kept away from restaurants following the coronavirus outbreak.

Australia is also China’s top supplier of barley, exporting to it nearly 1.5-2 billion Australian dollars’ worth of the grain each year. China draws more than half of Australia’s barley exports.

US growers of corn and sorghum could also benefit should Australian barley exports to China be hit by a major tariff. Barley, like corn and sorghum, is often used in animal feed in China.

Meanwhile, Australia’s dairy industry has called for a snap meeting with federal government officials amid growing fears of a third trade strike from Beijing.

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