Food Exporters Resist China’s New Coronavirus Restrictions

Date: Friday, June 26, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Customs authority requests companies sign documents declaring products aren’t contaminated with the virus

China is tightening restrictions on food imports as it seeks to stave off a resurgence of the coronavirus, but its efforts are meeting resistance from government agencies of major food exporters.

China’s customs authority requested last week that companies sending meat, dairy and other food products to the country sign documents declaring that their food hasn’t been contaminated by the virus and that they are in compliance with Chinese laws and international guidelines for food safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The companies were also asked to agree to take “all necessary measures to eliminate food-safety risks” if they encounter cases or suspected cases of the coronavirus, according to meat-industry officials and exporters who received the letter.

China sent the requests to overseas food exporters after a Covid-19 outbreak in Beijing this month was linked to a meat and vegetable wholesale market. The city’s health authorities said they found the coronavirus on a chopping board belonging to a vendor that sold imported salmon. That led to safety inspections of fresh and frozen meat, poultry and fish in warehouses, supermarkets and other food-handling facilities.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said Wednesday that foreign efforts to restrict food exports related to Covid-19 transmission went against science and health authorities’ views that the coronavirus can’t be transmitted through food or food packaging.

“The U.S. food-safety system, overseen by our agencies, is the global leader in ensuring the safety of our food products, including product for export,” the federal officials said.

China’s General Administration of Customs didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The USDA and U.S. trade officials initially cautioned American food exporters about signing such documents, according to people familiar with the matter, since China’s requests for Covid-19 attestations weren’t negotiated as part of trade-policy discussions between the two countries. Ultimately, U.S. federal officials this week opted to leave the decision up to exporting companies, one of the people said.

“Most of our poultry producers in the U.S. have provided their importer with a statement as has been requested by Chinese officials, to help assure that their products will not be rejected at the port, as have most companies around the world,” said James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council. Some companies have signed China’s documents, and some have submitted their own versions, he said.

Beijing has reported more than 250 coronavirus cases since June 11, most of which are from the southern district of Fengtai, where the wholesale market is. Top health officials in the country said there was no evidence that the coronavirus was found in or transmitted through salmon, walking back earlier suggestions that imported food could have been the cause of the outbreak.

Nevertheless, China recently suspended meat imports from at least four processing plants in the U.S., Brazil and Europe, citing Covid-19 outbreaks among workers at the facilities.

The suspensions included a Tyson Foods Inc. chicken plant in Arkansas, where close to 500 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus since early June. Of the positive cases, Tyson said 95% were asymptomatic.

Companies operating two of the other three plants had stopped exports voluntarily before the suspensions after staff at those plants were diagnosed with Covid-19, according to the Chinese customs website. No reason for the suspension was given.

Food exporters in several countries are deliberating over China’s request that they declare their food production free of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said there is no evidence Covid-19 is a foodborne illness and that it is unlikely to spread through food packaging.

Some U.S. food-industry executives worry that China could use those attestations as a reason for rejecting or delaying food shipments. They also said they have reservations about signing a fairly open-ended attestation without knowing what specific Chinese laws and regulations they would be agreeing to.

A Tyson spokesman said the Arkansas-based company has agreed to China’s request. “We are very confident in the safety of our products and have put measures in place that are in full compliance with all applicable requirements, and have signed the certification on that basis,” he said.

Australia has said it is discouraging some food exporters from signing additional food-safety declarations for products going to China. A spokeswoman for Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment said it had instead responded to Chinese customs to provide assurance that the country’s exporters were meeting guidelines.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has responded to a request from China’s customs administration for assurances that food exporters are protecting against Covid-19 food contamination, a spokeswoman said. Some Chinese trade associations and importers have sought individual assurances from Canadian food producers, which Canada’s government is leaving up to the companies’ discretion.

New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries confirmed that exporters there had also received the request from China to sign a Covid-19 declaration, which it understood to be voluntary, according to a spokesman.

China, the world’s top consumer of pork, is dealing with a shortage of protein after an African swine fever epidemic drastically reduced the country’s hog herd. Chinese meat imports in the first five months of 2020 have jumped from a year ago as it tries to meet consumer demand and stop domestic prices from rising. Its customs officials have begun testing imports arriving in the country to check that they aren’t contaminated by the virus.

Darin Friedrichs, senior Asia commodity analyst at StoneX Group, said China’s efforts to test produce and seek assurance from exporters might appear extreme given that the virus is unlikely to be transmitted through imported food. “They’re being overly cautious at this point,” he said.

 

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