China halted the importation of Canadian beef and pork in June, saying some Canadian meat had tested positive for ractopamine, an additive that is banned in China, and was sent over with forged inspection certificates.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted the news Tuesday afternoon, calling it “good news for Canadian farmers.”
China is one of Canada’s largest export markets for pork and beef. More than $500 million worth of Canadian pork and nearly $100 million worth of Canadian beef were sent to China in 2018, representing the second- and fifth-largest markets respectively for those meats.
Diplomacy or Desperation?
The two countries have been embroiled in a diplomatic dispute for nearly a year, ever since Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver last December. Two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, were detained in China days later and remain in custody there.
China also banned Canadian canola shipments in March, claiming they did not meet quality standards. There has been no suggestion that China’s position on canola will undergo a similar reversal anytime soon.
Both the Canadian and Chinese governments have claimed that their actions have been legitimate and lawful while describing the other country’s motivations as political and vengeful.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said China’s decision may have less to do with a thaw in relations than with food supply issues.
China is the world’s largest pork producer, but its herds have been devastated by an outbreak of African swine fever. Approximately 1.2 million Chinese pigs have been killed since August 2018 in an attempt to contain the disease.
The decline in supply has caused the price of pork in China to nearly double over the past year, even as the country has increased its imports from Europe and Brazil.
“I think it’s mostly self-interest,” Saint-Jacque told CTV’s Power Play.
“Of course it helps to have ambassadors in both places, but let’s recall that the Chinese have been very clear that the relationship cannot get back to normal unless we return Mrs. Meng.
“The leadership in Beijing was faced with, most likely, a lot of pressure from Chinese consumers, 1.4 billion Chinese consumers that were complaining that the price of pork had increased by 70 to 100 per cent.”
Saint-Jacque warned that Canada should brace for more turbulence in its relationship with China.
“The federal government has to make a decision on whether it will allow Huawei to participate in 5G development in Canada,” he said.
“We have been warned if they are not allowed there will be further measures taken against Canada. For that reason it’s important for the federal government to try to get as much support from allies.”
However, Saint-Jacque said he has seen other indications that China may be warming up to Canada, including a 103-year-old Canadian anthropologist Isabel Crook receiving the Medal of Friendship, the highest honour a foreigner can receive in China, from President Xi Jinping in September.
“There have been small signs recently that I think the Chinese leadership wanted to give to Canada to tell us that, in fact, they may review their position,” he said.
“Let’s hope that we will see more of that, but it’s no time to celebrate just yet.”
How Did It Happen?
Saint-Jacques said part of the credit for China’s reversal should go to the efforts of Dominic Barton, who was appointed in September as Canada’s ambassador to China.
Prior to Barton’s appointment, the position had been vacant for more than half a year. Former ambassador John McCallum was dismissed in January after making comments that suggested an element of politicization in Canada’s decision to arrest Meng.
Barton was singled out by name in Trudeau’s tweet and a subsequent statement from Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and International Trade Minister Jim Carr. He was also given specific credit in a statement from the Canadian Meat Council industry group.
Council president Chris White said industry representatives will soon be travelling to China to meet with authorities at all ports where Canadian meat products enter the country.
“Our long-standing trade relationship with China is very important to both sides and this represents an important step for both countries,” he said in a statement.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association issued a similar statement, saying it had been in contact with the government since June “to help assure China of the safety of Canadian beef in order to resume access as soon as possible.”
David Moss, general manager of the association, welcomed the lifting of the beef ban.
“The growth potential is amazing,” Moss told CTV News Channel.
“Last year we were about 10,000 tons and about $100 million. We surpassed that total in the first six months of 2019, so it’s a high growth market with high potential.”
He said the beef market was less impacted than the pork sector due to the recent Chinese embargo.
Pork farmer and former president of the Canadian Pork Council, Jurgen Pruegschas, said the suspension of pork sales to China hit like a bombshell in June.
Political turmoil between the two countries hasn’t helped, Pruegschas added, and he said some in his industry needed to do a better job of labelling products.
“This year looked like a good year with fairly good profits for our industry and then in June that bombshell drops and we’ve missed half the year of massive exports to China, which has been a key market for us,” Pruegschas told CTV News Channel.
China produces and consumes about half the world’s pork, he said.
Graham Shantz, president of the Canada China Business Council, told CTV’s Power Play that the Canadian pork industry was on track for a billion dollars from exports there this year.
“The approach to get out of the problem was a science-based exchange,” Shantz said.
“It was presented as a scientific problem, it has been resolved, I would assume, through good science.
“We would like to see a return to more traditional forms of diplomacy, so we were pleased to see the appointment of ambassador Dominic Barton to China and also of the Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu to Canada.”
Good news for Canadian farmers today: Canadian pork and beef exports to China will resume. Thanks to Ambassador Barton and the Canadian meat industry for their work on re-opening this important market for our meat producers and their families.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) November 5, 2019