China's hunger for New Zealand food means nearly a third of total exports are now snapped up by the Asian nation and - thanks to the African swine fever outbreak - it was the top market for Kiwi beef in 2019.
Exports to China jumped 21 per cent to $16.7 billion in the 12 months to December and now make up 28 per cent of the total value of exports versus 24 per cent in the prior year.
Beef exports to China rose 112 per cent to $1.7b while beef exports to the US fell 20 per cent to $956 million. Total beef exports lifted 16 per cent to $3.6b.
"In 2019, nearly half of the total value and quantity of beef exports were sent to China. Around a quarter were exported to the US, reversing the figures for 2018 when it was the top destination," said international statistics manager Darren Allan.
This was "partly due to the strong demand from the Chinese market for alternative meat sources such as beef and lamb, after the African swine fever outbreak in China in 2019 affected pork production," he said.
Chinese buyers scoured the world for animal protein as the outbreak slashed its pig herd by a third, driving up prices of alternative red meat.
Prices are still firm, with the average price of beef increasing 22 per cent since September 2019, Allan said.
Total exports rose 4.7 per cent to $59.9b in 2019, while imports were up 1.3 per cent to $64.2b. The annual trade balance was a deficit of $4.3b, slightly narrower than the $4.7b tipped by economists in a Bloomberg poll. It was also well down from the $6.2b deficit in 2018.
Milk powder, butter and cheese led the rise in annual exports, lifting 11 per cent to $15.8b. Preparations of milk, cereals, flour and starch rose 23 per cent to $2.3b. This commodity group includes infant formula.
On the import side of the ledger, consumption goods rose 5.1 per cent to $16.5b while intermediate goods lifted 0.9 per cent to $27.5b. Intermediate goods include turbo jets and turbo propellers, crude oil and some processed fuels and lubricants. Capital goods inched up 0.2 per cent to $13.6b.
Imports from China were up 3.7 per cent to $13b.
The month of December saw a trade surplus of $547m as exports lifted 4.8 per cent to $5.5b and imports fell 5.4 per cent to $5b.