On-the-Ground Updates

China's trade partners frustrated with frozen food coronavirus tests

Fresh Whole Beef
Shelly Chen
Published Nov 17, 2020
Food-producing nations are criticizing China’s stepped-up screening of frozen imported products, which Beijing claims are responsible for spreading coronavirus.

China says it has discovered the virus on packaging from 20 countries, including German pork, Brazilian beef, Argentine beef, and Indian fish; however, foreign officials complain that since Chinese authorities have produced no evidence, it is affecting trade and damaging the reputation of imported food without reason, Reuters reported.

During a World Trade Organization meeting on Nov. 5-6, Canada described China’s testing of frozen foods and rejection of products that had positive nucleic acid tests as “unjustified trade restrictions” and called on Beijing to stop, a Geneva-based trade official briefed on the meeting told Reuters. Backed by the U.S., Britain, Brazil, Australia, and Mexico, Canada argued that China had not provided scientific justification for the measures, the official said.

Washington said on Nov. 17, 2020 that it asked Beijing “bilaterally” and at the WTO to make sure its screenings “appropriately assess actual risks, particularly when they unjustifiably restrict trade.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture said, “China’s most recent COVID-19 restrictions on imported food products are not based on science and threaten to disrupt trade.”

China began testing chilled and frozen food imports for coronavirus in June 2020 after a cluster of COVID-19 infections were traced back to workers at a wholesale food market in Beijing. The testing campaign was then ramped up after China linked the infection of a Tianjin warehouse worker to frozen German pork last week, according to the Financial Times.

Since then, food packaging from Jining, Xiamen, and Zhengzhou have reportedly tested positive for coronavirus. Cities across China have pledged to ramp up screening and sterilization of imports.

The World Health Organization has said that neither food nor packaging is a known transmission route for the virus, Reuters cited. Nonetheless, China continues to claim that the virus can be contracted from frozen foods and packaging.

There has been growing frustration among trading partners who say China’s increased scrutiny of food imports does not adhere to global norms. Others have complained about a lack of transparency with Chinese officials refusing to share test results with foreign countries.

Germany has questioned Chinese officials claims that frozen pork was the source of infection, with a spokesperson from Germany’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture telling Deutsche Welle that despite transmission being theoretically possible, there remained “no known cases of infection with Sars-Cov-2 through consumption of meat products or contact with contaminated meat products or surfaces.”

On Nov. 16, 2020, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden also questioned China’s claims, after coronavirus was detected on frozen New Zealand beef in the city of Jinan. Arden said she was confident New Zealand meat exports were not contaminated with coronavirus but that Chinese authorities had not given more details.

In August, Brazilian officials visited Shenzhen after traces of the virus were found on chicken wings from their country, Reuters said. Chinese authorities were unable to provide information on whether or not they found active virus, the Brazilian agricultural ministry said.

In its responses at the WTO, China said its actions were “provisional based on scientific basis” and designed to “protect people’s lives to the maximum extent,” a Chinese trade official said.
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