China's customs authority said on Friday that it has suspended imports from three Ecuadorian shrimp producers after samples recently collected from the outer packaging of their frozen shrimp and the interior of a container in which they were shipped tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Experts say the positive test results do not necessarily represent a risk for spreading the virus, but they point to the presence of contaminated surfaces and expose the lack of food safety supervision at some enterprises, Bi Kexin, director of the General Administration of Customs' food import and export department, said during a news conference on Friday.
"To protect the health of consumers, the administration has decided to suspend the registration of the three Ecuadorian businesses in China, halt their imports, and return or destroy detained products," he said.
"We have also reported the situation to Ecuadorian authorities and asked them to conduct investigations and provide feedback."
The administration has begun testing cold-chain products for novel coronavirus－especially those from high-risk countries－since the recent outbreak in Beijing tied to a wholesale food market raised concerns about the safety of fresh and frozen food, including frozen seafood.
The recent locally transmitted outbreak in the capital, first reported on June 11, has been brought under control but the source of infection is still under investigation.
According to Bi, as of Thursday, customs officials nationwide had run tests on nearly 228,000 samples taken from cold-chain imports, their inner and outer packaging and where they're kept.
Customs in Dalian, Liaoning province, detected on July 3 the presence of the virus in the interior of a container with frozen shrimp from Ecuador and in three outer packaging samples.
On the same day, customs in Xiamen, Fujian province, found the virus in two samples of outer packaging from an Ecuadorian company.
The virus was not found on shrimp or the inner packaging of the products and all other samples tested negative, he added.
Bi said with the accelerated spread of the virus overseas, the administration has intensified inspection of imported cold-chain food, which has an increasing risk of contamination with the coronavirus.
"So far, the administration has suspended imports from 23 foreign meat producers that experienced new cluster infections, including some from Germany, the United States, Brazil and the United Kingdom. Ten of them had voluntarily halted imports to China based on our requirements," he said.
In addition, the administration has urged overseas food manufacturers to ensure the safety of shipments to China and has adopted remote checks online.
In response to the impact of new import restrictions on global trade, Li Xingqian, director of the Ministry of Commerce's foreign trade department, said increased oversight over cold-chain food is meant to protect the safety and health of people and conforms to international rules.
Several international organisations, including the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation, have released documents that ask member states to employ necessary interim measures to prevent the virus from contaminating food products.
"There is no definitive answer on whether the virus will be preserved in or spread through food or food packaging, so China has decided to step up supervision over cold chains based on comprehensive and scientific evaluation, and our control measures apply to both domestic and foreign companies," he said.
From January to May, China's total imports of agricultural products reached $65.5 billion (S$90 billion), up by 9 per cent year-on-year. In June, imports of food products and agricultural goods also registered rapid increases, Li said.
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