The Shanghai Public Security Bureau said 13 tonnes of beef had been seized in a case worth over US$4.8m. So far, not all suspects have been officially arrested, with another nine awaiting trial on bail.
The gang, led by a Japanese national, smuggled 97 tonnes beef from Japan to Cambodia, where they changed the Japanese ladles on the beef for Chinese, the bureau said.
The beef was then taken to China via Laos, and sold at a premium in major Chinese cities including Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou to bars, restaurants and food processors.
Being unregulated, smuggled beef is seen as a health risk by quarantine officials. A BSE outbreak in 2001 led to China banning beef imports from Japan.
Operations by the General Administration of Customs (GAC) this year have confiscated frozen meat worth around a half-billion dollars in a nationwide anti-smuggling campaigns.
Between January and December last year, authorities dealt with an overall 18,556 smuggling cases, according to data released by the GAC.
Among these, 2,158 cases were filed for criminal investigation and 4,289 suspects had been placed under "coercive measures". Smuggled goods have been high on the radar, with authorities reiterating the strong penalties on offer for those convicted.
The GAC stressed harsh checks and punishment on drugs, arms, overseas waste and endangered animals and plants.
Some 1,191 smuggling cases involved tax evasion worth over US$2bn, up 54.4% on the year. Agricultural smuggling has been one particular target, with almost 600 cases featuring alleged tax evasion worth US$1.3bn being investigated. These included cases involving 3m tonnes of grain products, 122,000 tonnes of frozen meat and 150,000 tonnes of cotton, according to the GAC.