‘Human error’ blamed for shock China beef ban

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Meat industry leaders remain hopeful of a quick resolution to a shock temporary ban on exports to China from six Australian meatworks.

The suspensions sent trade officials and industry representatives into overdrive when news of the ban, which affects five companies, emerged in Australia late on Tuesday afternoon.

In response to the bans federal Trade Minister Steven Ciobo said he was prepared to travel to China next week. Mr Ciobo also revealed that early discussions between the two nations had yielded some benefit for Australian producers and the affected meatworks.

“Chinese authorities have indicated that meat that is already in containers on the water, that was dispatched before the 24th of July, will still be accepted by China. So that’s a big sigh of relief,” he said.

But given the scale and value of Australia’s growing beef export trade to China, news of the bans has sent ripples around the industry.

Australian beef exports to China in 2015-16 were valued at $866.5 million, with almost $794 million of this frozen beef. China is Australia’s fourth-largest market for beef exports and is growing strongly.

“Potentially, we’re looking at tens of millions [of dollars] and potentially even more than $100 million of trade that’s affected. Beef and lamb exports lay at the core of this,” Mr Ciobo said.

“China is a very significant market for the export of Australian beef.”

Mr Ciobo said the ban did not involve health and safety concerns, describing it as a “largely technical issue” involving labelling.

The temporary bans affect meatworks operating in three states: Queensland, NSW and South Australia.

Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive Patrick Hutchinson said some consignments of meat sent to China “had some labelling issues, where basically the labelling is not meeting their standards, most notably in the area of definition. So they’ve put this temporary suspension on these six plants in order for them to get this right.”

Mr Hutchinson said his phone went “into meltdown” when industry figures learnt of the bans.

The China market for Australia is very, very important.

Australian Meat Industry Council’s Patrick Hutchinson

“We take this exceptionally seriously and we’re engaging with the authorities to get this solved … this is a human error issue,” he said.

About 46 Australian meatworks have approval to process meat to be exported to China (including the six local plants currently suspended).

“The China market for Australia is very, very important. Based on 15-16 levels it’s over $900 million, as far as value is concerned. So [it’s] a very important market destination for us that is also growing,” he said.

“Our processing systems are world class, and in a lot of circumstances they’re world-leading,” Mr Hutchinson said.

By Darren Gray
Sydney Morning Herald

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