In 2020, China adopted a system to test imported "cold chain" foods for covid-19 virus at the border; disinfect all imported food shipments at the border; track the shipments as they move through the marketing chain; segregate imported foods in storage, transportation and retail; and require QR codes at point of purchase. The actual science behind the program is squishy, and it's not clear that any live covid-19 virus has ever been detected. The crisis gave Chinese regulators cover to impose onerous requirements that few exporters have complained about.
|China's imported cold chain food program requires imports to be segregated |
from domestic products with a QR code that allows consumers
to view required certificates of inspection, covid tests, and disinfection. Source: Xinhua News.
In the early months of the pandemic Chinese authorities tried to dispel concerns about risk of covid-19 transmission by domestic food shipments. A circular written by a Chinese scientist posted on local government web sites in May 2020 sought to quash rumors that rice, oranges and other foods from Wuhan--the center of the first covid-19 outbreak--were unsafe due to contamination with the virus. The scientist assured readers that the virus could not survive on food nor be transmitted by food because the virus needs a human host to survive. The circular cited WHO and U.S. university studies showing that risk of transmission on transportation equipment and packaging is also insignificant because the virus cannot survive for long periods and viral loads are not large enough to infect humans. The scientist pointed out that essential oils emitted by the skin of fruits and vegetables act as natural disinfectants that can inactivate the virus. Part of the text from this circular appeared word-for-word in an article issued by China's official Xinhua press later in the year debunking "Ten food safety rumors in 2020." "Food from Wuhan is unsafe" was rumor no. 8 in the article.
In June 2020 Chinese authorities decided to single out imported food as a risky vector of virus transmission. A covid-19 outbreak in Beijing that month was purportedly traced to a cutting board in the city's Xinfadi wholesale market. Authorities blamed Norwegian salmon--a product that had previously been targeted to punish Norway--although no conclusive evidence was ever found. A week-long nationwide food market testing program was launched the following week. Tests focused on imported food, workers who handled it, and the surrounding market facilities. No positive results were reported.
Authorities began their campaign against covid contamination of imported food in earnest in July 2020. They raised concerns about meat packers in Germany, the U.S. and Brazil. Shrimp from several Ecuadoran exporters was suspended after finding traces of covid virus inside shipping containers and on packages. Rejections of a few other seafood and meat products were reported by Tianjin and Dalian ports. Some soybean exporters said their Chinese customers had requested guarantees that shipments were covid-free.
New media reports of covid-positive food tests came in bunches during November and December 2020 after the State Council issued an order to set up the national imported food testing-tracking system.
|In January 2021 Chinese State TV announced that imported cherries tested positive |
for covid-19 virus in Wuxi, a city in Jiangsu Province, causing prices to plummet.
After the system to test/sanitize/track/segregate imported food was in place, officials began sending mixed messages about the covid risk posed by food. A January 23, 2021 essay in Science and Technology Daily interviewed a Yangzhou University professor who claimed that, "generally speaking", the covid-19 virus can survive for a long time at low temperatures. The professor contradicted the earlier circular by asserting airborne virus, infected workers, or virus on equipment could contaminate the surface of food. The professor insisted that the uncertainty of transmission means that imported food must be regulated tightly.
Two paragraphs later, the professor acknowledged that a positive nucleic acid test does not mean that the food will transmit the virus. The professor noted that few positive results had been obtained and explained that the positive tests may detect fragments of virus DNA that may no longer be alive nor infectious. He noted that a senior researcher at China's National Center for Food Safety Risk assessment said that no live virus has been isolated or cultured from positive samples taken from food surfaces. Twelve paragraphs into the article, the professor concludes there is no reason to avoid cold chain food as long as it has been tested and sanitized.
Mixed messages in numerous articles in Chinese news media over the past year have sought to head off consumer panic while insisting that imported food is risky. For example, an article from Huizhou Daily this month quoted the deputy director of China's Center for Disease Control who said that a positive nucleic acid test of imported food just means that it was once contaminated and not necessarily infectious now. The expert said that amount of virus detected on imported food or packaging is too low to be transmissible to consumers. These articles often include exhortations not to believe or spread rumors. These articles follow up these assurances with stern warnings to wear disposable gloves when handling imported foods, not to touch one's mouth, nose or eyes when eating imported fruit, to wash hands and utensils after handling imported food, and to disinfect packaging and use protection when handling food purchased by overseas shoppers or agents.
In February 2021, China's customs administration reported that it had tested 1.49 million samples of imported cold chain foods, of which 79 had tested positive for the covid-19 virus (a 0.0053 percent positivity rate). No updated national testing numbers have been reported. This month Shanghai's port claimed it has inspected 700-800 trucks and containers per day and tested 1.52 million samples of imported food since it set up its imported food testing and tracking system in November 2020.
Chinese officials claim they can focus these testing and control measures on imports because no domestic food has tested positive for covid. But it's not surprising no positive results were obtained since domestic food is never tested; if you test enough samples of anything, you're bound to turn up some positives. Their claim is also debunked by reports in news media during 2020 that chicken from three processing plants in Anhui and Heilongjiang Provinces was found to be covid-positive. The source of contamination was never discovered--all follow-up testing was negative.
The most numerous border rejections appear to have been at border crossing points from Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand to China. In 2021, shipments were suspended for bananas from Myanmar and long'ans from Thailand. In December dragon fruit from Vietnam was suspended for a month following three positive tests, with 5000 trucks reportedly queued at the border. Border crossings from Myanmar were closed for trade of all products except sugar, rubber and rice for months due to covid concerns.
|Trucks waiting at the Chinese border. Source: 生鲜传奇.|
Hundreds of trucks loaded with dragon fruit, durians, jackfruit, mangos, long'ans, and bananas found themselves stranded with merchants having little choice but to dump rotting fruit on the side of the road or sell it at a steep discount. Reports said roads in Myanmar were littered with boxes of rotten bananas dumped by stranded truckers. When the crossings are open, trucks move through at a snail's pace, slowed by the time-consuming testing and disinfection procedures.
Despite the strict border measures, most reports of imported food contamination come from small cities in China's hinterland for fruit, seafood, and meat that had entered the country and traveled through one or two intermediate markets or warehouses before testing positive. Many of them reported "weak positives", and follow-up testing of additional samples, workers, storage areas and equipment always are negative.
In the latest example this month, several third-tier cities in Zhejiang and a county on the outskirts of Hangzhou reported positive covid-19 results for Vietnamese dragon fruit. Earlier this month, a county in Guizhou Province hundreds of miles from Thailand discovered contaminated Thai long'an fruit had been sold locally. A notice called on local consumers to report to authorities if they had purchased long'ans from the fruit stand in front of the hospital, from a 55-year-old lady with short hair selling fruit from a hand cart, or a certain stall in the local market.
In one peculiar September 2021 case, kiwi fruit from New Zealand was reported to be covid-positive in Nantong City, Jiangsu Province, two other small cities, and at an intermediate market in Hefei, Anhui. The kiwi shipments had passed testing at Shanghai's port, and exporters in New Zealand insisted the fruit had tested negative before they shipped it.
China's elaborate measures to regulate imported food are not a simple protectionist trade barrier. While it has functioned as such--farmers harvesting fruit in Southeast Asia have seen prices plummet while prices have soared on the Chinese side of the border--this doesn't seem to be the main motivation.
A commentary released by a supermarket chain, "Is this the worst year for Southeast Asian fruit?" incisively explained the impact from the perspective of China's private sector. Referring to a surge in Chinese fruit prices due to plummeting shipments from Southeast Asia, the commentator disagreed with colleagues who suggested closing the border permanently in order to boost prices for Chinese farmers. He argued that protectionist measures are short-sighted because they would prompt other countries to retaliate with barriers to China's industrial exports. He also observed that competition had forced China's fruit industry to work hard and innovate, creating new varieties, marketing channels, and brands. This brought great benefit to consumers, the commentator argued.
A food safety regulator quoted by Science and Technology Daily acknowledged that China relies on imported food, and suggested that shutting down food imports would be like a person giving up eating because he's afraid of the danger of choking on his food.
The main impact of the imported food controls is to catapult China into its long-sought role as a country that can dictate the rules and practices in international trade--what Chinese officials call 话语权 (literally translated as "right to speak"). After years of being badgered to meet Japanese, U.S. and European food safety standards, China now has an excuse to demand that exporters comply with its endless requirements for inspections, certifications, registrations, documents, "closed loop" pipeline-type traceable marketing channels, and to insert its surveillance cameras in foreign processing plants.
Science and Technology Daily emphasized that China's customs authority had "strengthened control at the source" for imported food by "moving the gate forward" to carry out remote video camera inspection of foreign processing plants, suspending products and companies, and strengthening inspections at point of entry, "resolutely refusing to allow poison to penetrate the border."
In the same vein, last year China Customs reported that imports had been suspended from 129 companies in 21 countries, and another 110 companies had voluntarily suspended shipments to China. Customs cited Xi Jinping's "important directives" to strengthen control of imported cold chain foods at the source. Customs said it held video meetings and conducted spot checks of 199 food exporters in 55 countries to urge foreign officials and companies to fulfill their responsibilities.
As the world's biggest food importer, when Chinese regulators say "jump", officials and companies around the world increasingly respond with "How high?" With a few exceptions, China's food imports are booming despite the elaborate requirements, so there aren't many public complaints. Many of the affected exporters, including Ecuadorian shrimp merchants, Chilean cherry cooperatives and fruit growers all over Southeast Asia have ramped up production to export to China. Even meat packers in the U.S. and Germany accepted tips from Chinese regulators on how to reorganize their plants to minimize covid contamination. Ecuador's shrimp exports rebounded in 2021. Chile expects another big year for cherry exports to China, although one Chilean official remarked that the country is looking to diversify its cherry export markets.