“They are like a vacuum cleaner, just sucking up the world’s surplus of meat.”

Key points:

  • China broke a record in March, importing more than 1 million tonnes of meat from around the world
  • Its meat imports for the first quarter of 2021 were up 21 per cent on the same period last year
  • Analysts say China’s battle with African swine fever has created a protein gap

That’s how one analyst described China’s demand for protein this year.

While a handful of Australian abattoirs continue to wait for the China trade to reopen, other exporting nations are feeling the full effect of China’s need for meat.

According to Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), China broke a record in March, importing more than 1 million tonnes of meat from around the world.

Its meat imports for the first quarter of 2021 were up 21 per cent on the same period last year.

a graph showing the sharp rise in Chinese meat imports in the last ten years.

Chinese meat imports have broken records in 2021.(

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Argentina beef ban

China has continued to surge as the world’s largest importer of beef and has been sourcing a lot of product from South America.

Argentina was supplying about 22 per cent of its beef needs, but then suddenly self-imposed a 30-day ban on all exports.

Export data from the US, up to the week ending May 20, suggests China may be turning to America to help fill the gap.

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African swine fever impact

So what’s causing China’s meat buying spree?

Most analysts agree that China’s battle with African swine fever has created a major protein gap.

“China is currently managing a new strain of African swine fever (ASF), which has been reported in several provinces in China and in Hong Kong,” MLA said.

“This new strain is estimated to have killed as many as 8 million pigs since the start of the year. 

“The outbreak is likely to place further strain on Chinese domestic pork production, leading consumers to supplement shopping baskets with supplies of imported meats as substitutions.”

Outlook for Australia positive

Rabobank’s Angus Gidley-Baird said while Australian beef exports to China had actually fallen in the past 12 months, the future for Australian red meat producers was looking very positive.

“China’s import demand has been fuelled by their [falling] domestic pork production, but there’s an underlying growth in demand for red meat,” he said.

“We don’t think Chinese imports of beef are going to contract like we expect pork and poultry to do as their pork production recovers.

“So that beef demand will stay there, and then you’ve got Brazil running flat out in terms of volume they can get out into the Chinese market, the US is probably at the top of its cycle, so I think things are still looking very positive from an Australian beef point of view for the next couple of years.”

Rabobank is estimating China’s pig herd recovery will take at least until 2023–24.

China has been importing record amounts of meat in 2021
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