While we still wait on import data for November and December, it is clear from January to October figures that China’s beef imports have peaked in 2023.

From importing just a few thousand tonnes of beef annually as recently as 2012, import volumes have grown rapidly in recent years to reach another new record 2.3m tonnes for the first 10 months of this year.

This is just ahead of 2.1m tonnes for the same period last year and 1.9m tonnes in 2021 (See Figure 1).

It has been a similar trend for sheepmeat imports, though the rapid growth ended with a downturn in 2022.

In the first 10 months of last year, import volumes dropped to 298,491t compared with what was a then-record 354,246t in 2021. This year, import volumes have rebounded, setting a new record at 362,907t (See Figure 2).

Pigmeat remains the meat of choice for Chinese consumers and, therefore, imports have been consistently substantial.

They accelerated to over 5m tonnes in 2022 as Chinese production was ravished by African swine fever (ASF) and while the herd rebuild was well under way in 2021, Figure 3 shows that for the first 10 months that year, import volumes were over 3m tonnes, more than twice the volumes imported in 2022 and 2023.

Beef suppliers

Returning to Figure 1, we can see that virtually all of China’s beef imports comes from the top five beef exporting countries in the world. Brazil alone supplies just under half of China’s beef imports at 942,224t for the first 10 months of this year, followed by Argentina on 446,859t and Uruguay, the other big South American beef exporter, supplying 230,295t.

China’s beef imports from Australia had dropped to 124,361t in 2021 due to a combination of drought-reduced supplies and suspension of factories, but these have been growing in 2022 and again in the first 10 months of 2023, reaching 190,413t.

The US is something of a new entrant to the market since 2020, having been out during the trade spat between the US and China when President Trump was in office.

From a standing start, their beef volumes into China reached 144,671t in the first 10 months of 2022, falling back to 133,878t in the same period this year, due mainly to tighter availability of supplies in the US.

Ireland was back on the list at 1,610t so far this year, but, unfortunately, business had to be suspended again because of the recent BSE incident.

Sheepmeat suppliers

As Figure 2 shows, China’s sheepmeat imports reflect the fact that there are two significant sheepmeat exporters in the world – Australia and New Zealand, which between them account for over 70% of all sheepmeat traded. China’s growing demand has made it the main trading partner for both countries.

So far this year, China has imported 186,829t of sheepmeat from New Zealand, the second highest ever after the record 2021, when less Australian supplies were available because of drought.

Imports from Australia have grown substantially this year to 161,825t compared with less than 120,000t in the same period over the previous two years.


As has also been the case with dairy, Ireland has been a consistent supplier of pigmeat to China for several years, even if volumes have fluctuated. In 2023, volumes were down on 2022 – 28,554t compared with 31,753t.

Both these are well below the first 10 months of 2021, when China imported 60,814t of pigmeat from Ireland, but this was an outlier in the period when China’s domestic supply was dramatically reduced by ASF.

Spain has dropped to second place in the supply table due to a slump in Spanish pig production, leaving Brazil on top at 352,567t.

Denmark also reflects the wider EU position, with pigmeat volumes greatly reduced this year, but, along with Netherlands, USA and Canada, is still supplying over 100,000t.


In 2024, Irish farmers will be looking to an ending of the BSE-triggered suspension of beef exports, but last time it took over two years to resume trade and there are no certainties on how long it will take this time.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is forecasting that China’s beef import demand in 2024 will be down slightly on this year at 3.5m tonnes carcase weight equivalent, 100,000t less than this year.

For pigmeat, it estimates a slight increase to 2.3m tonnes carcase weight equivalent compared with 2.75m tonnes this year.

Note: all China’s import data is in product weight, whereas USDA forecasts are carcase weight equivalent. This is the volume of product prior to processing.

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