There is an unfortunate irony in the fact that less than a week after a very successful trade mission to South Korea and during this week’s mission in Malaysia and the Philippines, BSE chooses to strike again.

If there is a positive angle to this story, it is that, apart from China, the atypical BSE case has no impact whatsoever on Ireland’s beef export trade or BSE status.

This is because atypical BSE is completely random in cattle, unlike classic BSE, which was caused by contaminated feed in the UK in the late 1980s and 1990s, and was found to have spread to EU countries in 2000 despite an export ban on British beef in 1996.

Classic BSE has been in decline for several years, with the last case in Ireland found in 2015. This meant that Ireland lost the negligible risk status it had just acquired and it did not recover again, until 2021.


The only significant trade consequence of this atypical BSE case is that we have to suspend beef exports to China.

That is unfortunate, because we had just secured re-admission to China following the last atypical BSE case that was discovered in May 2020.

At that point, China was a fast-developing market for Irish beef and had taken 6,500t of Irish beef in the five months prior to the suspension having taken over 10,000t in 2019.

At that time, China was recognised in the Irish beef industry as a genuine new market, with huge potential of up to 30,000t of beef.

That all ended at a stroke with the BSE case, and it took until January this year for China to lift the suspension of Irish beef imports.

Trade recommenced, but not with the same momentum. Since 2020, the China-US trade war was partially ended, which led to China importing 144,000t of US beef in 2021 – rising to 178,000t in 2022.

The few thousand tonnes from Ireland weren’t missed! Australia has also come out of herd rebuilding following drought, and they have increased their volumes to China this year, causing even more competition for Irish beef.

The other issue is that the rapid rate of increase in China’s beef imports has slowed down.

From importing just a few thousand tonnes of beef in 2012, China’s beef imports grew rapidly to 2.1m tonnes in 2020, 2.3m tonnes in 2021, and 2.6m tonnes in 2022; this year has shown just a small increase.

There is no such thing as a good BSE story, but in terms of damage to export markets and reputation, this incident is just about as harmless as it could be

The pandemic and overall slowing of the Chinese economy, coupled with abundant supplies from South America, have also meant that they are paying much lower prices than in 2020.

All this means is that, while China remains a market of interest to Irish farmers and beef exporters – taking almost 2,700t of beef up to the end of August – its loss isn’t catastrophic.

Road back

Ireland isn’t the only country that has had a problem with the BSE protocol insisted on by China. Since Ireland’s previous case, Brazil has also had to suspend exports twice, because they too had atypical BSE cases twice. However, because China depends so much on Brazil for beef imports, their restoration was fast tracked.

The Brazilian government have started a negotiation with the Chinese government about revising the BSE protocol, following their last suspension, which was lifted in January this year.

If China is looking at this, we could hope that any amendment to their BSE protocol could be extended to cover other countries, including Ireland, but there are no guarantees.

Negligible risk

It is a source of some relief that this atypical BSE case has no consequence whatsoever for our BSE status with the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH).

Ireland’s status is ‘negligible risk for BSE’, which is the highest classification it is possible to achieve.

That means that all other export markets apart from China will continue to accept Irish beef, and even if customers outside the UK and Europe were uncomfortable, despite having the top BSE status, our export volumes to these countries so far in 2023 have been at their lowest for the past five years.

There is no such thing as a good BSE story, but in terms of damage to export markets and reputation, this incident is just about as harmless as it could be.

What would be ideal is that China quickly lifts the suspension as it did for Brazil in January and, better still, revises its protocol in relation to BSE to disregard atypical cases in supplier countries – but that is their call.