FEDERAL Trade Minister Steve Ciobo has refused to clarify comments made at a red meat industry event about “unfortunate” and “unfolding challenges” for export trade and shipments to China, which may ignite further market suspensions.
Farm industry sources, spoken to by Fairfax Agricultural Media, expressed surprise at the minister’s public comments, in his speech at the forum last week at Parliament House in Canberra - but they provided no specific details, of any new trade threats.
Mr Ciobo has been holding ongoing talks with Chinese officials following the shock suspension of six Australian beef exporters to the booming market earlier this year due to labelling issues, which subsequently resulted in an audit of import facilities as part of remedial action.
Asked to provide clarification of his somewhat vague comments before a host of federal politicians and high level industry leaders at the Red Meat Advisory Council’s (RMAC) launch of its state of the nation report, Mr Ciobo’s office declined.
But speaking at the event, Mr Ciobo stressed he and Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce would work alongside the red meat industry to enhance market access.
“In particular of course we know some of the challenges that we face with respect to China,” he said.
“In particular I know we’ve still got unfortunately some unfolding challenges in that space - including some shipments that have happened in the last 48 hours and some issues there.
“I just want to reassure you, in the same way that I’m sure the Deputy Prime Minister will, that we want to work alongside you.”
However, it’s understood there are unconfirmed rumours within industry that two Australian exporters are facing new issues regarding non-compliance with exporting standards, in particular product labelling, which could set-off alarm bells for Chinese importers and officials, potentially sparking more suspensions.
It is not yet known when China will lift its existing suspensions on the other six Australian beef exporters.
But one source, who asked not to be named, said there had been some “slackness” among Australian beef exporters which fell well-short of required standards and defied the popular industry and political rhetoric around Australia’s trading reputation for selling clean, green, safe product into markets like China.
The source said some exporters had “got what they deserved” in terms of the Chinese market suspension - but others within the group of six had been “caught up” in what could be deemed an “excessive” response, by China’s government.
Mr Ciobo said in the past six months or so, the Australian government had experienced success with trade development to markets like Indonesia; not just for live exports but also boxed and frozen product.
“The fact that we’re able to put our best foot forward with a high quality protein that in many respects is unsurpassed and unmatched around the world, makes it an easy sell,” he said of his role opening and expanding trade market access through deals like the China Free Trade Agreement.
“Your success is our country’s success.
“Your success will be visited upon all of those communities, especially in regional centres, who stand to directly benefit as a consequence of us opening up these export markets.
“I’m confident through a commitment to quality assurance, to good supply chain management, and of course to the ethical treatment of animals - which we’ve seen Australia be at the absolute forefront of - we will continue to have an excellent reputation globally, and continue to set the pace that the others must follow.
“For that I want to congratulate RMAC and all your constituent bodies for the outstanding leadership and work that you do and I’m very pleased to be able to fly flag for industry while I’m abroad.”
RMAC’s six members are: the Australian Livestock Exporters Association; Australian Lot Feeders’ Association; Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC), Cattle Council of Australia; Goat Industry Council of Australia; and Sheepmeat Council of Australia (SCA).
RMAC referred inquiries to AMIC CEO Patrick Hutchinson who has been contacted for comment regarding Mr Ciobo’s comments.
Last month, Malaysia issued a temporary ban on three Australian meat processing facilities.
It’s understood the Chinese temporary suspension handed down in July is estimated to be costing the Australian exporters about $1 million per day.