Pigs Feet, China and Brexit

Aidan Campbell RCN Policy officer reflects on the journey to secure export approval for NI Pork products to China and what this might tell us about future trade deals post Brexit.

Back in November 2017 exports of pork from Northern Ireland to China began.  Dr Robert Huey the Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Chief Veterinary Officer said:

“I am delighted that China’s certification agency, the CNCA has announced its final approval for Northern Ireland plants to export pork to China. I look forward to the commencement of exports.”

The DAERA Press Release tells us that this was the culmination of a five-year process of negotiation and lobbying involving the Department, DEFRA, the NI Bureau in China, the Food Standards Agency and the Industry.  It also involved 3 Ministerial visits to China by Michelle O’Neill and one Ministerial visit to China by Michelle McIlveen.  Two separate teams of inspectors from China visited Northern Ireland processing plants in 2015.  For the first time two processing plants in Northern Ireland can export all cuts of pork to China.  Importantly, this includes pigs trotters which are a low value product here but are highly valued in China.  This means that processors can now get a greater return on each carcase and the industry estimates this could be worth an additional £10M to the NI economy (yes that’s a remarkably round figure for an estimate). 

Now obviously this is a good news story for NI agri-food (although not for the pigs) but what’s it got to do with Brexit?  I’m no expert in international trade or food exports but surely this story tells us something about the future of trade in agricultural products.  Gaining access to new markets in Asia and elsewhere may not be as straightforward as some may hope.  The experience of securing approval for pork exports into China has hopefully given officials and the industry important insights into how to negotiate the bureaucratic hurdles.  China is the biggest market for UK pork outside the EU although the UK sold nearly three times as much pork to the EU compared to China in 2017.  So, if a favourable trade deal between the UK and the EU can’t be agreed serious work will be needed to replace any EU market share lost by UK producers as a result.

Mr Huey reflected on the complexity of this particular negotiation in evidence he gave to the Assembly Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs committee meeting on 30 June 2016, less than a week after the Brexit referendum.  He was responding to comments from South Down MLA Harold McKee about the delay in securing approval from China for imports of “fifth quarter” pork products.  Mr Huey said:

“Someone from the US once said to me that no one has the right to export products into their country and that they would make it as difficult for us as possible.  That is almost the way to think about it.  If you turn it round, how easy do we make it for imports from other third countries?  Not very easy might be the answer.  It is a dog-eat-dog world out there…The average trade deal takes somewhere between two and 10 years.”

Can NI grow its share of the Chinese pork market and how quickly can that be done?  Will Chinese producers raise their production levels and how might that impact future NI imports?  What bearing will Brexit have on trade with China after the UK has left the EU?  Will any of the extra income make its way down to the hard-pressed farmers who are producing the meat?  These are all questions producers and processors must balance as they make investment decisions.  A dog eat dog world seems to sum it up well.

For more details you can contact Aidan on 028 8676 6670 or email aidan@ruralcommunitynetwork.org. You can also visit our website www.ruralcommunitynetwork.org

Wednesday, 23 May 2018