China suspends Australian beef imports as public spat over coronavirus origin heats up

China has backed up its threat of economic retaliation against Australia, suspending beef imports from four of the country's largest meat processors as ties between the trading partners sour following a dispute over the origin of the novel coronavirus.

Last month Australia called for an independent international inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus just a few days after China floated putting an 80 percent tariff on Australia's barley shipments.

"I think it's incumbent upon China to answer those questions and provide the information so people can have clarity about exactly what happened because we don't want it to be repeated," Australia's Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said on April 17.

China responded by threatening a boycott and accused Australia of doing America's dirty work.

"Obviously (Dutton) must have also received some instructions from Washington requiring him to cooperate with the U.S. in its propaganda war against China ... Some Australian politicians parroted what those U.S. forces have said and followed them to launch political attacks on China," a Chinese embassy official said. "Their move reveals the former's ignorance and bigotry as well as lack of independence, which is sad."

As tensions between the trading partners escalates, those caught in the middle say they can't afford the fight.

"Some politicians in Australia say too much, they need to stop this rhetoric with China, especially criticism and speculation regarding the origin of the COVID-19 virus," Sam McNiven, founder at Australian beef producer Providore Global told Reuters. He added that Australia shouldn't be picking fights with its largest trade partner but instead work to support it.

China is the No. 1 market for Australian beef and accounts for about 30 percent of exports.

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Australia's Trade Minister Simon Birmingham called the import suspension "disappointing" but denied it was payback over Australia's coronavirus inquiry.