Northern Ireland pork exports to China 'could be worth £10m a year'
Northern Ireland pork has been provisionally approved for export to China, a move the industry has said will be worth £10m a year to the economy.
Final approval is expected once the two companies intending to export complete additional work at their factories.
The companies are Karro Food Group and Dunbia.
Permission to ship pork directly to the new market will see about 12,000 tonnes a year being sent.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said the start of exports would be "a major boost to the industry".
Karro Food Group, based in Cookstown in County Tyrone, said, in time, there will be more jobs to cope with the additional exports.
The Chinese government's provisional approval, granted after a long inspection process, means authorised plants can soon sell heads, trotters, stomachs, hearts and bones.
Plants in the Republic of Ireland are already licensed to sell to China.
This move will put Northern Ireland processors on an equal footing.
Chinese officials visited abattoirs in Northern Ireland as part of the inspection process while Ms O'Neill visited China several times as part of the approval process.
However, pig farmers say the new export opportunities will not mean a huge expansion of the industry.
Hugh McReynolds, who runs a pig farm in Strabane in County Tyrone, and helps manage a pig producers' co-operative that supplies Karro Food Group, said processors will be able to sell more of the existing carcass, and that will help get a better return for each animal slaughtered.
"What we want from the market is a stable return and anything that will help with the stability of the market is good for the pig farmer and ultimately good for Northern Ireland PLC," he said.
"Some of the people in that market are affluent but many of them aren't and they'll only be using the by-products.
"So it'll help to balance the carcass, but it won't drive demand for the prime cuts on that carcass."
Karro Food Group invested heavily as part of the three-year inspection and authorisation process, spending about £400,000.
It meant building new changing rooms for each section of the slaughter line, and a separate packing area for the product destined for China.
Seamus Carr, chief executive of Karro Food Group, said approval for direct access to China would have a "significant impact" on the business, giving it a potential increase in turnover of about 10% at the Cookstown plant.
He said he hoped to pass some of the extra profit back to farmers.
"There will be a premium and what I say to farmers is that we will share that with them," he said.
Expansion of the pig industry is a key element of the Northern Ireland Executive's Going for Growth strategy, designed to increased the value of Northern Ireland's agri-food industry.
It has a target of increasing the sow herd by 40% to 53,000 by 2020.