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French beef producers on Tuesday hailed a deal reached by President Emmanuel Macron and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to end China’s 16-year-old embargo on French beef.
The accord, which would allow French producers back into the huge Chinese market within six months, came as Macron made a three-day visit to the country, his first destination in Asia as France’s leader.
The ban was imposed in 2011 as Beijing started closing off its markets to all European and later US beef imports in the wake of the ‘mad cow’ disease scare.
Paris has been working for years to promote the safety of its meat and open new markets for its ranchers, who were hit hard by the ‘mad cow’ scare of the 1990s.
‘Our beef currently has no access (to China) for sanitary reasons. But with French beef consumption falling five percent a year, we have to find new markets,’ said economy minister Bruno Le Maire, who is travelling with Macron.
‘It will allow for higher prices that will better compensate cattle ranchers,’ he said.
‘It will take time’
Beef is rapidly becoming more common on Chinese tables as the middle class expands, with imported meat particularly prized.
‘Excellent news for France’s beef producers, who consider the potential of the Chinese market a strategic opportunity,’ the Interbev producers’ association said in a statement.
Its president, Dominique Langlois, is part of the delegation of about 50 business leaders who joined Macron for his trip.
Interbev said China is the second-largest importer of beef, at nearly 1.1 million tons a year.
The average inhabitant eats four kilogrammes (8.8 pounds) each year,  according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Ninety percent of China’s imports currently come from Brazil, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand. 
Several countries have dropped their import bans against French beef in recent years, including the United States, which again opened its market last year after imposing a ban in 1998.
French producers could nonetheless find China a tough market to crack.
‘There is market share for France to take in China,’ said Jean-Marc Chaumet, an economist who specialises in China at the French Livestock Institute in Paris.
‘But it won’t be an Eldorado. It will be hard and take time, because France will be entering a very competitive market already open to the US, Uruguay, Canada and Australia,’ he said.
‘And they’ll need to invest, because the Chinese don’t know about French beef,’ Chaumet added.
Beyond beef, French officials said talks were continuing about China’s ban on French poultry, imposed in 2015 after an outbreak of bird flu.