Compared to the domestic sector, China has historically had a very small beef trade sector – both for imports and exports. However, the import volumes increased rapidly from 2012 to 2014 due to increased consumption and domestic beef prices (see above). Import trends are discussed here through data reported in UNComtrade data for broad categories of bovine meat (fresh/chilled and frozen, carcass forms and cuts, bone in and bone-out).
Mainland China has for nearly all of the past 20 years been a net exporter of beef Southeast Asia and the Middle East, but exports trailed off to only 7,000 tonnes in 2014. This has traditionally been low value frozen beef but has increased in value to US$9.13/kg in 2014 (possibly a niche trade).
China has historically imported only modest amounts (tens of thousands of tonnes) of beef, but volumes increased to nearly 300,000 tonnes in 2014. Of total beef imports, 99% are frozen at an average value of $US4.30 in 2014. The other 1% of fresh or chilled beef (3kt), virtually all from Australia, sold for an average of $US7.20, significantly lower than the US$18/kg in 2011. On an aggregated level, this suggests China is still a price-sensitive market and that a significant proportion of beef is destined for mass markets or processing.
Imports are limited to countries declared free of foot and mouth disease (FMD) and BSE, of which Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay are the major exporters to China, with small volumes from Canada, Argentina and Costa Rica. The application of total country bans excludes major beef producers including Brasil the US and India. In addition to 13% VAT, China applies import duties that range from 25% for frozen carcasses to 12% for most beef and offal products for countries with most favoured nation (MFN) status. These policy settings, together with high demand and prices, sets the scene for very large volumes of the informal imports, estimated at up to 1 million tonnes, and certainly higher than formal imports.
Figure 10. Beef imports and exports, mainland China and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), 1992-2014.
Source: UNComtrade (2014)
Hong Kong is major channel for informal beef imports, and volumes can be estimated through trade data. Volumes of imports into Hong Kong have increased roughly in line with direct imports to the mainland, almost all of which is frozen and from countries without access (Brazil, the US) or with partial access (Canada) to the mainland market, but which can export to Hong Kong. Part of this increase in beef imports can be explained by decreases in modest live cattle imports into Hong Kong and official re-exports of beef to other Asian countries, especially Vietnam. However, domestic consumption in Hong Kong is unlikely to have changed much (around 60,000 tonnes per year). Thus, up to 300,000 tonnes of beef imported into Hong Kong may have been smuggled from Hong Kong into mainland China in 2014 (although are reported to have declined in 2015 with the crackdown on illegal smuggling). Informal imports from Vietnam are likely to be higher as discussed below.
Beef offal is formally imported directly into mainland China (20,000 tonnes from the same countries that export beef to China) but much larger volumes flow through Hong Kong. In 2014, Hong Kong imported 300,000 tonnes of offal, re-exported 92,000 tonnes, leaving more than 200,000 tonnes of local consumption and smuggling to China (Figure 11). Offal comes both from countries that can’t export directly to the mainland (the vast majority from Brasil, but also Argentina, US, and Europe) and that can (Australia, Uruguay, New Zealand).
Figure 11. Beef offal imports into mainland China and Hong Kong, 1992-2014
Source: UNComtrade accessed June, 2011