Despite global shipping disruptions, strong demand gives red meat exporters reason to be optimistic

Cargo ships.
Red meat exports to China increase 124 percent year-on-year in February. Photo credit: Getty

The red meat industry is confident global trade is getting closer to returning to business-as-usual, but global shipping disruptions continue to pose problems for exporters.

Figures released last week show red meat exports for February totalled $906.7 million, the same as in February 2020.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there was a large shift in the destination of meat sent overseas in February this year, with exports to China increasing 124 percent year-on-year but dropping to most other markets.

Sirma Karapeeva, chief executive of the Meat Industry Association (MIA), says after a tough year the new figures give the sector cause to be optimistic.

"February's looking pretty good actually, given the year that we've had previously and the fact that the challenges with COVID have not gone away," she told Magic Talk's Rural Today on Wednesday.

She said the returns in February reflect the sector's market diversification strategy, which aimed to manage the ongoing risks in various markets around the globe.

Overall exports for February were 47,467 tonnes - the highest for the month in more than 20 years.

The overall volume of sheepmeat exports increased 10 percent, with the bulk of that - 28,080 tonnes - sent to China, followed by the UK and US.

Karapeeva said despite a few disruptions, mainly at ports, China's economy was essentially "up and running" again now.

"The huge demand that we've seen from China is paying really good prices and it is really positive that they're back on track looking to import similar amounts to what they've done in the past - and hopefully that means a much better return to our companies and ultimately to farmers."

Despite demand remaining strong, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose challenges for exporters, Karapeeva said.

"In terms of shipping lines and availability of containers, it is a concern. 

"We're getting reports from a number of our member companies that the cost associated with shipping product offshore is increasing exponentially, not to mention the fact that there are challenges with getting the empty containers to the right place at the right time."

She said the disruptions were particularly difficult for smaller companies, which compared to larger businesses lacked well-established relationships with shipping lines.

"Some of those smaller guys are really struggling with those increased prices and disruptions to the shipping schedules," she said.

Despite those issues, Karapeeva was optimistic the industry was closer to being "business-as-usual" again.

 "There's definitely some signs that things are starting to stabilise."