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Canada, China diplomatic row provokes farm troubles

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Saint-Thomas (Canada) (AFP)

Quebec hog farmer Serge Menard is worried about the future of his herd and his farm in the wake of China's ban on Canadian meat exports -- the latest screw to turn in an escalating diplomatic row.

"It leaves a bitter taste," he says.

Hundreds of pigs heading to slaughter in a few weeks wag their tails at the sight of strangers near their enclosure at the farm about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Montreal.

Menard checks to make sure they have enough food and water.

The sexagenarian, who has been breeding pigs since 1976, is concerned that wholesalers and exporters will immediately cut their orders after China this week halted all Canadian meat imports.

Chinese authorities said they took the measure after discovering bogus veterinary health certificates attached to a tainted pork shipment.

Earlier this month, the official Xinhua news agency said customs officials in the eastern city of Nanjing had found ractopamine in the pork sent by Canadian firm Frigo Royal Inc.

The feed additive, which boosts the growth of animals, is widely used in the United States but is banned in the European Union and China.

Canadian federal police have been called in to investigate the forgery allegations, coming amid already strained bilateral relations.

Canada's arrest of a senior Chinese telecoms executive in December and China's detention of two Canadian nationals in apparent retaliation have sent relations into a tailspin.

Authorities in both Ottawa and Beijing are treating this latest irritant as a "technical issue," according to Canadian Trade Minister Jim Carr.

But international relations experts and farmers see the meat ban as an escalation in the diplomatic row that has also seen China block billions of dollars worth of Canadian canola exports.

"What are we going to do with all those pigs that were supposed to go to the slaughterhouse?" asks Menard. "What are we going to do with all the meat that was supposed to be sent to China?"

China is Canada's third largest market for pork exports, with Can$514 million shipped there last year, or 13 percent of total exports.

- Pork futures fall -

The ban has sent ripples through the market, causing pork futures to plummet at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

"I never would have thought that the price could have fallen as fast as it has," Menard said, noting average prices dropped from US$250 to US$210-215 overnight after the ban was announced on Tuesday.

"If it continues to fall, we will soon be forced to sell animals at cost," he said.

Menard noted that Quebec farmers no longer use ractopamine, "so I do not understand how it ended up in a shipment sent to China.

"Did they really find it in a batch of pork from Canada? I don't know. Is this just politics? I don't know that either," he said, shaking his head.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association is also puzzled, saying in a statement: "It is unclear why beef products have been included in this suspension."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is attending a G20 summit in Japan this weekend, where at Trudeau's behest President Donald Trump is expected to raise the "arbitrary" detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China tops Trudeau's summit agenda, but it's unclear if he and Xi, who has so far rebuffed the Canadian leader's attempts to reach out in a bid to settle the diplomatic and trade row, will speak.

Beijing has called for the release of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. A hearing in Vancouver in January will decide whether there is enough evidence to extradite her to the US to face fraud charges related to Iran sanctions.

The diplomatic standoff, says Menard, "will affect the meat exports, that's for sure."

But he is uncertain for how long, noting that he is putting off upgrades to his small independent farm. "We don't know what's coming."

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