EXPORTERS of beef, lamb, seafood and a range of other perishable food items destined for the China market are being asked to supply declarations supporting the COVID-19 safety of their shipments.
Trade sources believe the root cause of the request may be the spate of COVID-19 sickness that has occurred in meat processing plants around the world since the pandemic set in in April.
Health authorities say there is no suggestion that COVID-19 can be transmitted through chilled or frozen meat, or indeed any foodstuff.
A recent COVID-19 outbreak in a Beijing wholesale meat market may also have contributed to the request from Chinese authorities. While imported salmon was the original suspect, no evidence of COVID-19 has been found in samples, and focus is now on the staff at the Beijing market.
Chinese authorities have since tested more than 50,000 samples of imported meats and seafoods of various sorts, without finding a single positive swab for COVID. Such testing has created delays in the distribution of perishable meats, however.
While the COVID-free declarations are voluntary at this stage, some exporters told Beef Central they were complying with the request, because it helped avoid long product sample testing delays in China on arrival.
“If you have a declaration letter, your product is less likely to be tested,” one trade contact said.
“It’s not that anyone is worried about getting a positive test result – it’s all about the potential delay caused by the wait for test results to come back,” he said.
Meat exporters in North America and elsewhere are also being asked to furnish similar COVID declarations. Some processing plants in North and South America, and Europe that have suffered COVID outbreaks among staff have apparently voluntarily suspended themselves from China supply list as a precaution, Beef Central was told.
The declarations being sought by China authorities are described as being ‘easy to comply with’ for Australian processors, who go ‘well beyond’ the steps asked for in the steps outlined by the World Health Organisation.
“In reality, the declaration being sought by China is easy for any Australian exporter to comply with,” a trade source said.
Being voluntary, it is unknown how many consignments of Australian red meat are now being sent to China with COVID declarations.
US meat exporters have also discussed China’s requests for COVID-19 related product statements this week.
“Global suppliers of a wide variety of meats, seafood and other foodstuffs are being asked by their Chinese importers to provide a document attesting that products shipped to China are not contaminated with COVID-19, and that establishments follow Chinese regulations and FAO-WHO interim guidance on COVID mitigation and food safety,” the US Meat Export Federation advised members.
“USDA has stated that they will not discourage exporters from providing COVID-19 statements if it is in their commercial best interests. While it remains unclear whether providing the document will have an impact on product clearance, or on the risk of a plant being suspended, USDA understands that companies may need to take necessary measures to protect their business interests,” USMEF said.
Direct communication between the US government and China’s General Administration of Customs (GACC) is expected to take place soon on this issue.
USMEF did not anticipate any changes to the export requirements for China outlined in the FSIS Export Library, though the library may be updated to reflect the status of individual plants if they are suspended, it said.
To date, it appears that since this issue surfaced, imports have been suspended from five processing establishments where workers have recently tested positive for COVID-19: one US poultry plant, one pork plant in Germany, one pork plant and one poultry plant in the UK and one beef plant in Brazil.
In some cases, the suspension is being reported by GACC as a voluntary measure taken by the exporting company, and communicated by officials from that country to GACC.
The International Meat Secretariat issued a statement to GACC, emphasising that according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation, there was no evidence to date of viruses causing respiratory illnesses being transmitted via food or food packaging.