China beef ban could see thousands of Queensland jobs at risk, Premier warns

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk will today write to the Prime Minister and Federal Trade Minister in a bid to stop a “full-blown trade war” with China, which could threaten thousands of jobs in the beef export industry.

China has blacklisted three Queensland abattoirs and one in New South Wales, citing labelling and certification issues.

Ms Palaszczuk said the beef processing industry employs about 18,000 people in the state and if the situation escalated, 3,200 of those jobs could be risk — particularly around Ipswich, Toowoomba and Kilcoy.

“What I’m really concerned about is this potential for a trade war to erupt and to damage Queensland’s exports, reputation, jobs and livelihoods,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

“If we go into a full-blown trade war this could mean over 3,200 workers impacted — this is really serious.”

Beef is Queensland’s largest agricultural export, with processors exporting meat valued at $4.89 billion.

About 80 per cent is destined for just five countries, including Japan, South Korea, United States, China and Taiwan.

Ms Palaszczuk said she would write to the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham and Prime Minister Scott Morrison today to get exports flowing again.

Abattoir in Kilcoy
The Kilcoy Pastoral Company-owned abattoir in the South East Queensland town of Kilcoy.(ABC News: Giulio Saggin, File Photo)

China has also signalled introducing a tariff on Australian barley, with commentators saying tensions initially arose in retaliation against Australia’s call for an international investigation into the origins of coronavirus.

“I would like this issue resolved as quickly as possible,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

“This is really important, these trade ties are crucial especially as we go into the recovery process of COVID.”

Mr Birmingham denied the stoush was linked to the call for a COVID-19 investigation.

“Issues with these have been running for 12 to 18 months.

“We’re working around the clock as a government to respond [in a] methodical manner to Chinese authorities, and to put the best possible case forward for our farmers and businesses to make sure that we protect the thousands of jobs they are involved in.”

‘Confident of finding a new market’

The Australian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU) said it was “business as usual” despite China’s suspension on beef imports.

Kilcoy Pastoral Company, the JBS-owned Beef City near Toowoomba, and Dinmore Meatworks near Brisbane, are among the meatworks affected.

Auctioneers selling cattle at the Casino saleyards.
Beef is Queensland’s largest agricultural export with processors exporting meat valued at $4.89 billion.(ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

AMIEU spokesman Matt Journeaux said work was continuing at these plants but staff hoped the issues behind the ban could be sorted soon.

“They’re confident they can find a new home for their product in the short-term,” he said.

“Obviously it takes a lot of work to find a home for that volume of product.

“If this goes on for any length of time it becomes a larger issue.”

Beef City, near Toowoomba, is one of three Queensland abattoirs to have been blacklisted by China.
Beef City, near Toowoomba, is one of three Queensland abattoirs to have been blacklisted by China.(ABC News: Elly Bradfield)

Mr Journeaux said shift cuts and job losses were unlikely in the in short-term but would be on the table if the ban continued.

“I’m confident that this matter will be resolved sooner rather than later,” he said.

‘Labelling issues being resolved’

AgForce general president Georgie Somerset agreed Australia could find new markets for its beef if China did not want it.

Ms Somerset said the industry was still working through labelling and certificate issues named by China as reasons for the ban.

But she said Queensland’s beef industry was heavily diversified and other customers for the state’s beef could be found.

“I actually believe there’s a really strong demand for Australian products,” she said.

“China is a large export market for our beef, but we do have other significant markets as well and one of the things during this COVID period as well as it has been incredibly reliable.”

Beef City, near Toowoomba, is one of three Queensland abattoirs to have been blacklisted by China.
An entrance to Beef City.(ABC News: Elly Bradfield)

Another blow to producers

Anthony and Chantal Winter run 700 full-blood Wagyu cattle and a feeding operation at Leyburn on Queensland’s Southern Downs.

They send all their cattle to be processed at the Northern Co-operative Meat Company in Casino in New South Wales — one of the four abattoirs China suspended imports from.

Mr Winter said the suspension had created uncertainty for their business, causing them to hold off sending cattle for slaughter.

“We actually had four decks of bullocks due to go to load-out tomorrow morning and another six decks next month — that’s worth $700,000 to us,” he said.

“We can’t bring more cattle in from the paddock because the pens are still tied up — we’ve just got to keep feeding them.”

He said prices for Wagyu beef had so far avoided significant pressure but that was likely to change.

“I don’t think it can go on indefinitely,” he said.

“Restaurants are shut everywhere — that’s where our product’s going.

“We’re going to have to take a hit sooner rather than later I think.”

Chantal and Anthony Winter stands next to a yard with some of their Wagyu cattle.
Anthony and Chantal Winter run 700 Wagyu cattle and a feeding operation at Leyburn.(ABC News: Elly Bradfield)

Ms Winter said it was another blow to producers who had already been dealing with the impacts of drought and coronavirus.

“Everything seems to be hitting the agricultural industry and you can only be as prepared as you can be,” she said.

“I guess we just hope that a lot of people are willing to invest into the whole business.”

The couple said they would be in a difficult position if the suspension continued for longer than two months.

“If this is political or not, depends on who you listen to,” Mr Winter said.

“We’d just like to be able to continue doing what we’re doing — what we’re good at doing.”


Image credit : Ms Palaszczuk is writing to the Prime Minister hoping to avoid a trade war with China.(AAP: Dan Peled)

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