Chinese consumers face a fresh increase in meat prices and an uptick in food price inflation after Beijing suspended imports from a swath of overseas processing plants because of concerns that Covid-19 outbreaks in the plants risked importing the virus back into the country.
The country’s customs officials have also stepped up inspections of frozen food imports at ports, leading to backlogs of up to two weeks and a shortage in storage space, delaying the supply of food to Chinese cities.
The moves came after virus outbreaks in slaughterhouses around the world intensified worries in China that imported food could carry the disease.
The World Health Organization and various governments insist there is no evidence of coronavirus transmission via food or food packaging, but Chinese customs officials from several cities said there was a “good chance” that the virus could stay alive in a frozen container.
“We are concerned about the transmission of [the] virus in the production process,” said a customs official at Zhanjiang port in southern China, who added it was “better to overreact than not act” given the seriousness of the disease.
Since mid-June, Beijing has suspended imports from 14 pork, poultry and beef plants in countries including the US, Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany and Canada, while another seven plants, including those in Argentina, UK and Italy, have voluntarily stopped shipments to China.
As a result, Chinese pork prices have rebounded by almost 50 per cent since this year’s low in May.
China has been rebuilding its pig herds after mass culls to tackle the spread of African swine fever, a virus which is deadly to pigs but cannot be transmitted to humans. However, the sector has suffered fresh outbreaks and, as a result, analysts expect domestic meat suppliers will struggle to meet demand.
Despite this, Chinese officials moved to tighten regulations on food imports after the virus was detected on cutting boards used to prepare imported salmon at Beijing’s Xinfadi market in June. Foreign exporters are now required to sign a document pledging food safety and submit to more inspections.
So far the inspections have not turned up any trace of the virus on imported products, and governments and executives in exporting countries whose plants have been suspended have criticised China’s move as unscientific.
“The Netherlands and other EU countries as well as the WHO emphasise that — based on scientific data and risk analyses — food and packaging material have no role in spreading the virus,” the Dutch agricultural ministry said.
The US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration said that “efforts by some countries to restrict global food exports related to Covid-19 transmission are not consistent with the known science of transmission”.
One senior executive in the Brazilian meat industry said the Chinese government was “overreacting”, adding: “They set an extreme standard that if there was an outbreak anywhere in the world, that plant would be banned.”
The Dutch agricultural ministry and meat sector executives are set to discuss the matter with Chinese officials later this week. Brazilian agricultural officials have called on Beijing to lift the suspensions, arguing that the suspended plants met all health requirements.
Although some Chinese customs officials said the tightened regulations on food imports could ease around mid-August, others warned that the measures would remain in place if overseas slaughterhouses continued to report virus outbreaks.
As a consequence, the volume of Chinese meat imports is expected to decline sharply in July, and some analysts have warned of a rise in food inflation.
Darin Friedrichs, analyst at commodities broker StoneX in Shanghai, said: “Pork prices continue to climb and China needs imports to keep inflation under control while the hog herd gets rebuilt.”
The increase in food inspections has also pushed up costs for importers, as the shortage of storage space means that many are paying about Rmb400 ($57) per container per day to keep their imports on board ship for up to 10 days while they wait for test results.