Coronavirus: China tightens surveillance of chilled food imports

PHOTO: Unsplash

China has stepped up its surveillance of cold food imports and introduced new penalties for safety breaches amid rising concerns of coronavirus contamination in supply chains.

A new regulation went into force on Friday after an academic study released last week showed the pathogen could survive on chilled salmon for eight days at 4 deg C – the temperature at which the fish and most other seafood products are usually transported.

The research was compiled by teams from South China Agricultural University and the Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

The customs authority said that under the new rules, cold food exporters that failed a Covid-19 nucleic acid packaging test twice would be blocked from shipping to China for a week, while those that failed it three times would be frozen out for a month.

The authority said that over the past year spot checks and audits by its officials had found breaches of health and safety measures – including insufficient use of personal protection equipment and insufficient disinfection – among 76 exporters of meat, fish, dairy and frozen fruit from 30 countries. 

“The companies have promised to rectify their practices. Their relevant export authorities have urged them to regularly conduct audits to ensure compliance with food safety regulations,” it said in a statement.

The random checks came after the customs authority asked 105 countries to adhere to the guidelines on food inspection and certification set by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The new controls come after a Covid-19 health scare at a wholesale food market in Beijing in June that was traced to chopping boards used to prepare imported salmon. China also suspended imports of cold food from 56 foreign firms reported Covid-19 infections among their workers.

In July, China customs suspended shrimp imports from three Ecuadorean companies after finding traces of the coronavirus on their packaging. The restrictions have since been lifted.

Last year, companies from around the world fell foul of China’s food safety regulations, with Polish and Hungarian poultry suppliers, Irish beef exporters and Kazakhstani mutton traders all facing restrictions. In May of this year, four Australian abattoirs were blocked from supplying beef to China over product labelling problems.

Although the World Health Organisation says there is no risk of the coronavirus being spread via food, the increase in controls and surveillance has fuelled a black market for smuggled goods.

Police in the south China city of Shenzhen said last week that since July they had handled smuggling cases involving more than 500 tonnes of frozen food.

For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.