China’s meat imports surge, while live cattle trade slows

An article in Global Meat highlights significant changes in China’s live animal and meat trade with the rest of the world.


China’s imports of live cattle dropped back in 2013, although there was a surge in cattle for beef breeding and finishing. According to China Customs data, China imported 102,245 cattle (cows, bulls and weaners) in 2013 which was down 26,000 on the previous year, but the figures included 9,370 Angus cattle from Australia and New Zealand destined for the beef sector. A batch of 3,000 Angus, classed as ‘beef cattle’, were imported from Australia in November alone.


A listing of major feed lots, published by China’s agricultural ministry, shows the bulk of China’s cattle feed lots are concentrated in Hebei, Liaoning and Shandong provinces. Yet cows and cattle are also being farmed in increasing numbers in the less populous northwesterly regions of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu and Xinjiang – all of which also have large Muslim populations and a traditional demand for halal-compliant beef products.


Official documents from China’s agricultural ministry regularly stress the need to cultivate a local animal husbandry sector, with dairy cows also marked as key to growing beef cattle numbers.


Subsidies are also paid to encourage the growth of beef and sheep farming in low-income rural areas, though feed remains a challenge, judging from a recent circular from the China Animal Husbandry Association, which called for an urgent revival of domestic alfalfa production.


Meanwhile, demand for meat has seen imports of meat continue to surge. Growth in China’s beef and lamb imports in 2013 dwarfed growth in the pig trade – 259,000 tonnes of lamb represent an increase of 108.8% while beef imports totalled 294,000t in 2013, a massive increase of 379.3%. Pork imports at 584,000t were up 11.7%, according to China Customs data.


China’s agricultural ministry claims China is the biggest market for New Zealand lamb, while Australia remains a key supplier of beef. Trade in what China Customs termed “livestock products” (including beef, lamb, pork and poultry) totalled US$19.51bn, up 30.9%. Exports in this category in 2013 amounted to US$6.52bn, a year-on-year increase of 1.3%, meaning China recorded a trade deficit in livestock products of US$12.99bn, a year-on-year increase of 53.4%.


Clearly, Chinese growth in trade of beef and sheep meat products is outstripping growth for other agricultural items: From January-December, China’s import and export trade in agricultural products in general totalled US$186.69bn, an increase of 6.2% on the previous year.


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