China steps up Covid testing and controls for South American beef

. Jan 29, 2021
China steps up Covid testing and controls for South American beef Cattle ranch in Mercado de Liniers, Argentina. Photo: Simon Mayer/Shutterstock

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted beef production across the world, as workers fell ill and plants were temporarily shut. In South America, outbreaks were reported at processing facilities in Brazil and Argentina, while workers in Uruguay went on strike.

Just as operations began to normalize, producers were faced with a new challenge, as China started detecting traces of coronavirus in beef imports. The latest wave of such reports came in November, when various Chinese cities said they had found the virus on beef sourced from Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina. Similar findings resulted in the temporary suspension of exports from nine processing plants in Brazil and seven in Argentina.

</p> <p>In addition to bans, Chinese authorities imposed strict testing requirements which have disrupted trade and created uncertainty for both suppliers and importers. And the issue is not limited to South America either, as China has reportedly found traces of the coronavirus in over 40 batches of meat samples from more than a dozen countries. Besides beef, the country also claims to have found the virus on shrimp from Ecuador, whitefish from India and Myanmar, salmon from Norway, crab from Chile, and squid from Russia.</p> <p>Recently, however, China&#8217;s trade partners have begun to push back. They claim the country&#8217;s concerns are unfounded while denouncing the measures&#8217; <a href="">negative impact on trade</a> and questioning the Chinese government’s true intent.</p> <h2>China trade: Growing concern amongst South American producers</h2> <p>In recent years, China has become South America’s largest buyer of beef, accounting for an estimated 75 and 58 percent of Argentina and <a href="">Brazil’s exports</a>, respectively. While <a href="">trade</a> has remained robust during the pandemic, producers are starting to worry about Chinese authorities’ increased scrutiny and testing of imported meat.</p> <p>The measures implemented by China include the &#8216;complete elimination&#8217; and &#8216;strict refusal of entry&#8217; of any products suspected to have had contact with the virus. Exporters whose products test positive face a week-long ban, extended to a month for offenders with three strikes or more. Further to this, in early November, China&#8217;s State Council established a plan requiring comprehensive disinfection measures for imported foods before they may be handled by workers.</p> <p>In supermarkets, some <a href="">imported meat</a> products display stickers declaring them to be virus-free, while other products contain a QR code through which consumers can access information such as country of origin and quarantine inspection certificates.</p> <p>These measures have so far resulted in the suspension of imports from 99 suppliers in 20 countries, including those from Argentina and Brazil.</p> <p>One of the latest such bans involves Argentinian beef processor Gorina, whose exports to China were halted for 4 weeks after authorities in Nanjing detected coronavirus on the packaging of the company&#8217;s products. Prior to the ban, Gorina was one of Argentina’s largest beef exporters, shipping between 2,500 and 3,000 tons of beef per month to China, accounting for between 55 and 60 percent of its total sales.</p> <p>“What happened in 2020 was very concerning, it was practically a lost year for the industry,” says Ignacio Harris, Manager and Technical Director at the Argentinian Association of Angus.</p> <p>Though Gorina is cooperating with Chinese authorities, some Argentinian industry players are skeptical about the accusations, speculating that the true intent of the controls is to restrict trade and drive prices down.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;The changes in the Chinese market have caused fluctuations in the volumes of meat exported by Argentina, but undoubtedly the main change has been in prices,” says Mario Ravettino, President of the Consortium of Argentinian Meat Exporters. “The price of frozen boneless meats exported to China decreased by 34 percent if we compare the prices of October to those of the end of last year.”</p> <h2>Negative long-term implications post-Covid-19</h2> <p>China’s suspicions of food imports show no signs of abating, with the latest coronavirus case involving Brazilian beef reported as recently as January 3.</p> <p>Inspection requirements have already led to a noticeable drop in the availability of beef in China, with supermarkets reporting shortages due to logistical delays caused by testing. At the same time, importers are placing fewer orders due to the higher costs of meeting customs requirements and the risk of losing entire shipments in case of a positive test.</p> <p>Until the coronavirus is fully eliminated from producing countries, the Chinese government is likely to maintain its heightened testing requirements. Authorities even found traces of the virus in beef imported from New Zealand, which had largely eliminated local transmission.</p> <p>A “new normal” with protracted restrictions on trade could result in lower volumes and prices for South American suppliers, as buyers turn to domestic sources of protein which may be deemed safer. Countries with lower coronavirus transmission — such as Australia and New Zealand — could also be favored.</p> <p>Beyond the immediate effect on trade, producers are also concerned about the long-term reputational impact the coronavirus crisis could have on South American beef. Chinese consumers have historically been highly sensitive to food safety, following a series of high-profile scandals involving everything from baby formula to cooking oil.</p> <p>Imported products were traditionally seen as safer, higher-quality alternatives than their domestic counterparts, but this perception has shifted in recent months as authorities stepped up their coronavirus testing campaign. Countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay had painstakingly built the reputation of their beef over many years, an image which is now under threat.</p> <p>“Before the pandemic, for six straight years, we went to the yearly international meat exhibition held in Shanghai to promote Argentine Angus beef,” says Mr. Harris. “It’s incredible to see how the Chinese importer and consumer changed over those six years, realising that there is a true difference in the quality of our meat.”</p> <p>Nonetheless, Mr. Harris is hopeful that the new controls and restrictions will only be temporary.</p> <p>“I don’t think that the Chinese government will keep implementing these controls for much longer, because they aren’t founded on real scientific evidence,” he says. “China needs to eat, it needs protein.”</p> <h2>Skepticism from the international community</h2> <p>The scientific evidence behind China’s findings has been widely questioned by overseas experts and governments, with some suggesting that the accusations are part of a broader campaign to obscure the origins of Covid-19.&nbsp;</p> <p>Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, recently suggested that instead of having originated in Wuhan, the coronavirus could have entered China through imported seafood or meat and their packaging.</p> <p>This claim is being increasingly echoed by other Chinese officials and media outlets. The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid backed by the government, recently published a major investigation titled “Could cold-chain imports have sparked Wuhan early Covid-19 outbreak?”</p> <p>Nonetheless, in a statement to the Associated Press, the World Health Organization (WHO) said cases of live viruses being found on packaging appear to be “rare and isolated” and that while the virus can “survive a long time under cold storage conditions,” there is no evidence of people contracting Covid-19 from consuming food.</p> <p>Pushback by China’s trade partners is also increasing. Canada filed a complaint to the World Trade Organization, while New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern publicly questioned China’s findings.&nbsp;</p> <p>In August, the city of Shenzhen said it found traces of the coronavirus on chicken wings imported from Brazil. However, the Brazilian agriculture ministry said local authorities were unable to provide any evidence supporting their claims.</p> <p>The lack of proof provided by Chinese authorities is one of the main sources of skepticism from the international community.</p> <p>“I have serious doubts about what China is reporting. There are a lot of technical questions — such as the type of testing kit they’re using — that they haven’t answered,” says Gerardo Leotta, Clinical and Industrial Bacteriologist and researcher at CONICET, Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council.</p> <p>“We have to remember that the principal means of transmission of this virus is between humans. We recently did a study in which we found that the likelihood of someone getting sick through a virus that’s on imported food or its packaging is one in a trillion.”</p> <p>In the meantime, no other major importers have reported similar findings to China.</p> <p>“What we are seeing happening in China is what the WHO calls an infodemic, the spreading of misleading or fabricated news,” says Mr. Leotta. “The way we can combat this is through truthful, science-based information that reaches consumers.”</p> <p class="has-text-align-center"><em><a href="">This article was originally published by Dialogo Chino and republished under the Creative Commons license</a></em>

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Lucia He and He Mu

Lucia He is a journalist at RED/ACCIÓN and a freelancer. He Mu is a food and agriculture investment professional specializing in China and Latin America

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