CHINA has banned imports of chilled Australian beef citing concerns over food safety, but the measure is being viewed by producers as a non-tariff barrier designed to protect the local industry.
The ban was issued on August 26 and is shaping up as an early test of how the Abbott government handles the sometimes fraught relationship with Australia's biggest trading partner.
Trade Minister Andrew Robb is about to restart talks on a free-trade agreement with China, in which agriculture will be a key negotiating area.
Mr Robb acknowledged China had "queried" the standards of Australian chilled beef and said he was working to resolve the issue.
"Australia has a reputation second-to-none in the standards we adhere to," he said.
Suspicions around the validity of Beijing's safety concerns became apparent when Chinese authorities said they may consider allowing imports to restart under a quota system if shortages eventuated. China also allowed into the country any imports that were on route when the ban was issued.
Chilled beef shipments to China have surged 873 per cent over the last year, due to a crackdown on smuggling and a series of food scandals involving local producers.
Chilled cuts, which are usually sold to high-end restaurants and five-star hotels, accounted for 18 per cent of Australian beef exports to China in terms of value, over the first seven months of the year. The total trade is expected to reach $600 million this year, making China the third-biggest export market behind Japan and the United States.
One Australian exporter, who asked not to be named, said the ban was about protecting local producers who had been squeezed out of the market by surging imports.
Another industry figure in Shanghai said the ban was "totally political" and was due to concerns from the local industry that Australian exports had grown too quickly.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, whose state is a big beef producer and is on a trade mission in China, said the situation had been raised with him and he was "concerned".
"We would really like to see chilled beef as a product line built up because it's the best quality product that could be delivered and there should be no impediment to it."
China's Food Safety Commission was upgraded to Ministry level in March and it was headed by Premier Li Keqiang until this month.
The commission is now led by Vice- Premier Zhang Gaoli, who has responsibility for the economy and is a member the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision making body.
The Australian Financial Review has been told that Chinese authorities are no longer accepting chilled beef, as Australian abattoirs did not have the correct certification. Prior to this abattoirs were certified for both chilled and frozen beef exports to China.
But this is no longer the case and big meat processors such as JBS and Teys are now facing a lengthy certifications process before exports can resume.
On the basis of this "advice" from the Chinese, Australian quarantine authorities have stopped issuing export certificates for chilled beef.