The door is opening for increased Australian beef exports to China, after Beijing this week lifted import restrictions imposed on three large Australian meat packers between 2020 and 2022. The move by Beijing is viewed as a positive development for the Australian beef sector and a sign of improved relations between the two countries. Ten Australian abattoirs have been suspended from trade with China since May 2020.

The Chinese authorities said the restrictions were imposed following outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers at the plants. However, fraught relations between Beijing and Canberra over the clampdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and tensions around COVID-19, fed into the Chinese decision to effectively ban the meat plants. Seven Australian meat factories remain under restriction, with the Chinese authorities alleging the abattoirs wrongly labelled or contaminated meat.

Australian trade minister Don Farrell described Beijing’s decision as “another positive step towards the stabilisation of our relationship with China”.

Australian agriculture minister Murray Watt said China’s decision was “very welcome news for Australian farmers and meat processors”. China imported 254,000t of Australian beef in 2020, accounting for 12% of total beef purchases. That was the lowest volume in four years and a decrease of 6.5% from 2019. However, last year the volume of Australian beef exported to China fell to 175,000t. China is expected to import close to 3.5m tonnes of beef this year, which is largely in line with last year’s levels. Brazil is China’s largest beef provider, supplying around 40% of total imports. The remainder of China’s beef imports come from Uruguay, Argentina and Australia. Australia is forecast to export around 1.4m tonnes of beef in 2023.