China’s beef imports to drop as hotpot comes off the boil

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BEIJING, (Reuters) – Just over two months ago, the Jinyuan Fucheng Beef Hotpot restaurant in northern Beijing had a long line of customers waiting outside its doors almost every night of the week.

Now, the restaurant that can seat 800 barely fills 20 tables a day, with most people still wary of dining out after the contagious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus killed more than 3,300 people in China and infected almost 82,000.

The sharp slowdown in business in China’s once-booming hotpot chains, barbecue restaurants and steakhouses is hitting the global beef industry hard, after top exporters had ramped up supplies to meet surging Chinese demand.

China is the world’s No. 2 beef market after the United States and fastest-growing, thanks to rising incomes that have driven imports up at least 20% a year for the last five years.

Though the Chinese are much bigger consumers of pork, the viral African swine fever epidemic, first detected in August 2018, slashed the country’s pig herd by around 50% and also got consumers switching to more beef.

Imports in 2019 hit 1.7 million tonnes, up 60% on the prior year, with about 70% consumed in restaurants, according to analyst and industry source estimates.

Now, demand is “very weak”, said a trader with a state-owned company that sources beef from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and is buying about 30% of last year’s levels.

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