Britain could start exporting beef to China again later this year, both nations have confirmed, bringing to an end a 23-year import ban imposed during the mad cow disease epidemic that hit the United Kingdom in the 1990s.
Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to the UK, and Robert Goodwill, the United Kingdom's minister of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, signed the UK-China Beef Protocol in London on Monday during the 10th UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue.
Both nations must now finalize a standard health certificate to accompany shipments, which are expected to commence by the end of 2019.
Goodwill estimates the move could generate 230 million pounds ($288 million) for British farmers and exporters during the next five years.
"This is a major coup for our world-class food and farming industry," Goodwill said. "Today's milestone reflects our ambition to maximize new trading opportunities across the world and become a truly global Britain as we leave the European Union."
China began the process of lifting its import ban on British beef last February, and this year Chinese officials completed a series of inspections of meat-processing plants and other facilities in the UK.
British beef exports were halted in 1996 due to an outbreak of the fatal neurodegenerative condition bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which is also known as BSE, or mad cow disease. The illness, which can spread from cattle to humans, led to the death of 180,000 cows and more than 150 people in Britain.
The EU lifted its ban on British beef in 2006, with the United States following in 2016. The reversal of China's ban now gives British farmers access to one of the world's fastest-growing markets.
"Today's step is welcome progress for our world-leading British beef producers, who will soon be able to export their products to one of the world's largest economies, supporting local jobs and bringing millions of pounds to the UK economy each year," said International Trade Secretary Liam Fox.
"As we leave the EU, we will continue to break down market access barriers to make it easier for UK businesses to trade across the world," he said.
Chinese beef consumption is increasing at a greater rate than domestic production, leading to a growing demand for imported meat. Between 2013 and 2017 Chinese beef imports increased at a compound annual growth rate of 24 percent.
China is now the second-largest importer of beef, behind the US. Last year, Chinese beef imports totaled $4.8 billion, representing 10 percent of global imports.
Five nations-Brazil, Australia, Uruguay, New Zealand and Argentina-supply 90 percent China's imported beef.
Phil Hadley, international market development director for the UK Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, said Britain is a modest exporter of beef in comparison to those nations and will look to establish a reputation as a supplier of quality produce.
"Surveys show that Chinese consumers consider British imported food to be healthy and safe," Hadley said. "We need to break into the Chinese market and build a reputation for reliability, great service, and good products, and then grow the consumer appetite for British products with messaging around food safety, animal welfare, and grass-fed animals."
Hadley said that whole-muscle cuts are likely to make up the initial beef exports. Down the line, British exporters may look to ship so-called "fifth quarter cuts", including offal, for which there is a far greater demand in China than there is in the UK.