China’s large-scale coronavirus tests on imported frozen foods may put more Australian exports on hold – ABC News

China has urged its ports to “take immediate action” to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission after it reportedly found cases it says are linked to contaminated frozen food packaging.

Concerns about importing coronavirus came after packages of frozen food from more than 20 countries, including Argentinian beef, German pork, Indian cuttlefish and Saudi shrimp, tested positive for COVID-19 in more than 10 provinces, Chinese authorities said.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) has previously dismissed the risk of COVID-19 infection from frozen food and food packaging, saying they are not known routes of transmission.

And Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) says: “There’s no evidence COVID-19 can be contracted through food or food packaging.”

So what action has China taken, what are the risks of becoming infected by packaging, and what impact will Beijing’s cautious approach have on Australian businesses?

What is China doing?

This week, China’s Ministry of Transport ordered tougher testing and disinfection measures for employees and equipment in cold-chain logistics.

The new precautions were mandated after a positive coronavirus diagnosis of a warehouse staffer was linked to frozen pork that was imported from Germany to the north-eastern city of Tianjin, home to one of China’s largest ports, last week.

Packages of frozen food from more than 20 countries tested positive for COVID-19.(ABC News: GFX by Jarrod Fankhauser)

In China’s economic centre Shanghai, authorities have launched a new policy that requires all imported cold-storage food to be disinfected and tested before being stored or sold in supermarkets.

It has triggered a disruption in the delivery of “high-risk” products, which are transferred to a transit warehouse while authorities wait for test results.

“All high-risk imported cold-chain foods that enter the city for storage, processing and sale need to be checked for nucleic acid testing and proof of disinfection,” the policy states, without specifying which goods are considered high-risk.

China’s latest food tests will focus on some imported products and their packaging.(Reuters: Thomas Peter)

The city of Jinan said it had detected coronavirus particles on frozen New Zealand beef, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has questioned the results.

She said she was confident no meat products were exported from New Zealand with the virus.

New Zealand also effectively ruled out cold storage as the source of its COVID-19 outbreak in August.

China’s testing has not been the subject of international scrutiny or peer review.

It has come under pressure from countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which fear the measures amount to trade restrictions.

Beijing discussed the testing measures with more than 100 countries before it temporarily suspended imports from 99 manufacturers in 20 countries, a statement released by China’s State Council Information Office said.

Is it true that ‘object-to-human transmission’ exists?

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WHO expert says there is no evidence of coronavirus transmission through food or food packaging.

Luan Xin, the Vice-Mayor of China’s eastern city of Qingdao, said authorities had found evidence of “object-to-human transmission” of COVID-19, referring to imported frozen cod.

“For the first time, a sufficient chain of evidence was found to show that the coronavirus can be transmitted from object to human and can survive long-term under frozen conditions,” Ms Luan said.

However, public health expert Hui Yang, an associate professor from Monash University, told the ABC said that claim had not been verified, as the Chinese Government had not shown that evidence to the public.

“I don’t agree with the term ‘object-to-human transmission’, because the source of infection and the route of transmission shouldn’t be confused, and they are not the same thing,” Dr Yang said.

He said there might be a “correlation” between contaminated food packaging and human infection, but it was not clear the packaging was the cause of infections.

“Cold-chain logistics has multi-stage workflows. It is unreasonable to blame the country of origin when the products test positive,” he said.

China has ramped up its precautionary measures on food markets and imported food as new coronavirus cases emerge.(AP Photo: Mark Schiefelbein)

While Australian researchers found coronavirus could live for up to 28 days on surfaces such as mobile phone screens and ATMs, it has not yet been confirmed how long it can survive on food packaging.

A study conducted by the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF) found the overall potential risk of acquiring COVID-19 from contaminated food or food packaging appeared to be “very low”.

“The consensus is that currently, there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is a food safety risk,” the report found.

“SARS-CoV-2 is therefore, not considered a foodborne virus. It remains primarily a respiratory virus, which may also enter the bloodstream via mucous membranes in the eyes.”

So what are the risks?

Dr Lara Herrero, a research leader from Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics, told the ABC that it was “possible” to contract the coronavirus through touching an imported cold-chain product, but the risk could be reduced to a “very small” level.

“I don’t think it’s hugely dangerous. I think with good hand hygiene practices and common sense, the risk to that can be reduced to very low,” Dr Herrero said.

Dr Yang said while relatively low temperatures may keep viruses active for longer “we need evidence as to whether this is also true for the coronavirus”.

Dr Herrero said it was up to each government to decide on their own public health policies to protect their people.

But she said the issue in China could be solved by providing gloves and information about hygiene to workers, rather than rolling out large-scale tests with higher costs.

“The procedures that we need to put in place to protect our workers, particularly our frozen food workers, would be quite minimal,” she said.

“It’s just commonsense procedures that we need to put in place to protect these workers.”

How would Australian exporters be affected?

Beijing’s measures for testing imported food came into effect on September 11.(Kim Honan: ABC Rural)

According to official data released at the China International Import Expo last week, Chinese consumers spent more than $124 billion on imported food in 2019.

Australia accounted for up to $10.6 billion in sales, making it the second-largest food exporter after New Zealand.

The Federal Government has been aware of China’s testing requirements since late September, and notified Australian exporters of the measures and sanctions, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment said.

The spokesperson said the Department supported the position of FSANZ, which said there was “no evidence of transmission” of COVID-19 through food and food packaging.

“Some exporters enquired about the measure when it was initially introduced by China,” the spokesperson told the ABC.

“The Department does not require testing of cold-chain products prior to export and food exported from Australia is safe and suitable for human consumption.”

According to the advice, the products of Australian manufacturers of cold-chain food, including frozen seafood, are subject to the tests.

If imported frozen food or packaging tests positive for COVID-19, their manufacturer will not be able to import goods into China for a week.

But if the manufacturer’s products test positive more than twice, their imports are suspended for a month.

Dr Yang said every country should monitor the routes of transmission closely.

“It is OK to be cautious. Every country including Australia should monitor the trend.

“Our importers need to provide the evidence, the same way as countries manage human mobility [during the pandemic].”

What does it mean for Chinese businesses?

Liu Yiming, a respected commentator on Chinese politics, said he believed the requirements showed Beijing was determined to tackle the spread of COVID-19.

But a “clean cut” on all imported frozen food would hurt Chinese consumers’ confidence in foreign products, he said.

He said he did not believe targeting foreign products would help boost the domestic economy, as Chinese importers and companies had also been affected.

“I think that recklessly keeping imported goods out of China will definitely hurt the Chinese economy,” he said.

“Many businesses will probably have to close their doors, and many people will be unemployed.

“But the state will not provide any compensation for them.”