This week, after authorities traced the origin of a recent COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing to a fresh food market in the city’s Xinfadi district, the nearby port of Tianjin has begun testing all meat imports for coronavirus, threatening to disrupt exports from the U.S.
According to Reuters, all containers carrying imported meat into Tianjin—a metropolis 70 miles from Beijing—are being opened so authorities can perform nucleic acid tests on every box of meat. Currently, the fastest tests available for humans can return a result in 15 minutes, but it’s unclear what scale of delays the new vetting procedures will introduce at the docks.
The latest outbreak—Beijing’s first in two months—has so far caused a cluster of over 130 infections, prompting the capital to implement “wartime emergency” lockdown measures once again.
The surge also sparked a boycott of imported salmon, after officials found traces of the novel coronavirus on a fishmonger’s chopping board inside the wet market. Authorities shuttered seafood markets across the city, fearing more outbreaks spawned by salmon.
Initial reports from Beijing’s Center for Diseases Prevention and Control (CDC) claimed the city’s latest coronavirus outbreak was of a European strain. On Thursday, Norway’s seafood association reported exports of the fish dropped 34% in the last week. On Wednesday, however, Norway’s fisheries minister said both Norway and China had concluded salmon was not the source of the virus.
Now it seems China’s suspicion has turned to all meat imports. Shanghai’s municipal government declared on Wednesday that it would strengthen inspections of food imports too but stopped short of announcing widespread testing. Ordinarily, authorities would test a portion of each batch.
The increased scrutiny at Tianjin comes despite experts saying it’s unlikely the outbreak was caused by meat imports. Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner of food policy and response at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said on Twitter that the FDA is aware of reports China will “begin testing foods” but added there is “currently NO evidence of the transmission of COVID-19 through food.”
China’s meat imports, especially pork, have surged in the past year as the country emerges from an African Swine Fever pandemic that decimated domestic pig stocks. In the first four months of the year, China imported 1.35 million tons of pork, up 170% from the same period last year. U.S. butchers have benefitted from the uptick.
In April Smithfield—which is owned by China’s W.H. Group—exported 9,170 tons of pork to China, which the New York Times says is one of the company’s highest monthly export volumes in the past three years. The same month, Smithfield plants in the U.S. became hotbeds for coronavirus infections.
If Chinese consumer sentiment turns against foreign meat imports, it could be a major blow for U.S. exporters. But connecting the coronavirus to meat imports would raise issues for China too, INTL FCStone’s senior commodities analyst Darin Friedrichs wrote in a note Monday.
“China needs imports to help keep meat inflation under control. [If there is a risk of importing coronavirus] there would need to be some increased safety measures about handling and processing of imported meat. But implementing measures like that, and making changes to the supply chain, could be disruptive,” the note said.
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