Beijing to Chinese consumers: imported food on the market is safe, BUT
BUT there's an abundance of caution
Xinhua (full disclosure: where your Pekingnologist works in the day), published this on Weibo on Tuesday afternoon, China’s equivalent to Twitter
【#imported food positive in a nucleic acid (testing) does not mean there will be transmission#】 Cherries and other imported food positive in nucleic acid testing (for COVID), can you eat them or not? China CDC experts said that "positive” can come from the nucleic acid testing of live virus, dead virus, and virus fragments, and the positive result does not mean that it will be infectious. #Customs authorities have taken preventive disinfections on 14.79 million pieces of imported cold-chain food packagings#, the safe and effective disinfection of packaging of imported cold-chain food can accomplish the inactivation of the coronavirus. For people, the risk of infection from touching the surface after disinfection is very low.
The news came after the News Channel of China Central Television (CCTV) aired a prime-time segment on Jan. 23 which quoted Dr. Zhang Wenhong, a Shanghai expert widely respected for straight-talking, as saying
So far, China has consumed countless seafood, bought countless things (in imports). On this, I just look at the probability, so far not one (COVID) case has emerged - that is, I bought an imported thing and as a result of which I got infected. That is to say, our customs has done a spectacular job in repeated disinfections. When the probability is lower than an air crash, you decide for yourself ......
Dr. Zhang shot to fame in the earliest days of the COVID pandemic by stating to media that he assigned doctors who are Communist Party members like Zhang himself to work at a hospital on the front line of the coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai, adding that was non-negotiable.
These appear to aim at reassuring Chinese consumers that the imported food available on the market is safe after shoppers apparently began shunning foreign food as the country nears its most important festival and shopping season, the Spring Festival, in February.
One of the prime examples is imported cherries, which used to fetch very high prices, is now at fire-sale prices (CHN) across Chinese cities. It’s even become a near-meme on Chinese social media. On the other hand, Chile is scrambling to regain Chinese confidence.
It’s unknown how Chinese consumers will vote with their money on this, but Chinese Customs authorities have been doing heavy disinfection work for quite some time. In fact, the CCTV segment emphasized how many manhours and protocols had been put into place before imported food are actually allowed inside China, and Dr. Zhang cited that as the basis of his rationale that consumers really don’t have to be paranoid about imported food on the market. There is a national plan (CHN) published on Nov. 8 via the Customs website.
The backdrop is rising Chinese suspicion towards imported food and in particular their packages, as one after another local government department reported COVID-positive test results on so many different things that your Pekingnologist lost count. Those reports from local authorities are loyally reported by Chinese media and then perhaps amplified through social media, fueling public concerns at a time when the pandemic is still raging abroad.
The percentage, however, is actually low. Central government officials said in a press briefing in late November, that 全国进口冷链食品及其外包装新冠病毒核酸抽检监测的阳性率为万分之 0.48 only 0.48 out of 10,000 imported food and their packages have been tested positive, and one expert told the briefing 目前并没有发现因为直接食用这些进口冷链食品引起的感染 there was to date not one documented case of COVID infection because from directly consuming imported cold-chain food, Xinhua reported in Chinese. The briefing did highlight, however, the rate of positivity was rising at the time and customs authorities were upping their efforts in disinfection.
What your Pekingnologist observes is Beijing does genuinely take risk of importing COVID infections via imported food and packages and has put in a lot of arduous work, at the very least at the customs level. But Beijing doesn’t appear to link it with recent, specific COVID cases.
This is a distinction worthy to make because there are media reports (no links here, don’t want this newsletter to be “gotcha,” or my Twitter) out there saying “Chinese officials have blamed frozen-food imports as one reason for the country’s new Covid-19 infections” or “Beijing has blamed frozen-food imports as one cause of a string of recent outbreaks.”
The content cited at the beginning of this newsletter stands in contrast.
But, in your Pekingnologist’s opinion, it’s fair to say Beijing has warned/worried frozen-food imports could be one cause of outbreaks (if enough precaution is not taken).
Now, by its own admission, the positivity rate from COVID testing is low - 0.48 out of 10,000 - as of November 2020, but apparently, Beijing is not taking any chances at all, perhaps worrying that China is a large importer of foreign goods so despite the percentage is low, in absolute numbers it would still be significant and any - ANY - corner must be covered to safeguard the relatively sound domestic control on COVID, which has already been threatened with a slew of local transmissions across various provinces.
Your Pekingnologist is aware of the viewpoint of the FDA, which is
Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19
and the WHO
Coronaviruses need a live animal or human host to multiply and survive and cannot multiply on the surface of food packages. It is not necessary to disinfect food packaging materials, but hands should be properly washed after handling food packages and before eating.
In a Q&A for food businesses, the WHO says, perhaps explaining China’s reported requirement of some foreign slaughterhouses and seafood providers to allow video inspection of their facilities.
If a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 is identified in a food premises then there is a requirement to completely clean the area with a neutral detergent, followed by decontamination of surfaces using a disinfectant effective against viruses. All surfaces that the infected employee has come into contact with must be cleaned, including all surfaces and objects which are visibly contaminated with body fluids/respiratory secretions, and all potentially contaminated high-contact areas such as toilets, door handles, telephones. Alcohol based sanitizers/surface disinfectants should be used for cleaning purposes.
Anyways, before you get bored, Your Pekingnologist would go out on a limb and say perhaps Beijing is not fully convinced with the mainstream view that, to put it bluntly, never mind food imports and their packages, and it has, as reported in a WSJ exclusive, sought to update the WHO rules:
the updated WHO draft seen by the Journal says: “Recent studies and reports have highlighted that the virus could survive a long time under frozen and cold-storage conditions, and that the transmission of the virus could occur from an external frozen package to an individual.”
The draft describes the risk to consumers as minimal, but adds: “On rare occasions, foods can be contaminated during production and in the case of frozen products, the virus could persist on the food or its packaging during international transport. For countries that have brought the virus under control, this could become a possible source of reintroduction of the virus.”
Now no matter Beijing’s current science or data is sufficiently convincing to other WHO members or to you, it is serious and sincere in its own belief - otherwise, its national rule on disinfection, highly-overworked Customs officers and COVID testers across the country, and even its vast number of consumers wouldn’t be behaving as cited above. There is now frozen fish pileup reported at a northeastern port.
There are suspicions that if Beijing is faking its fears, or merely or using the issue to hurt, politely speaking, unfriendly countries’ exporters, as this Reuters story in November says
“Whenever a health authority performs a test, and finds something, they should share the results,” said a Beijing-based diplomat who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to media.
“We haven’t received one single lab analysis,” he said. “Everyone is asking ‘Is it true? Did they really find anything?’ Everyone is surprised that no proof is given.”
As the gap in understanding between Beijing and the Western world is already and increasingly huge, what your Pekingnologist wants to say, on behalf of only himself, that it’s up to you to believe if COVID could be transmitted via food imports and their packages, but Beijing’s does believe that’s a possibility. (Ultimately, it’s up to science.)
And, come on, even Russians are reportedly blocked - not just, let’s say, Americans, Australians, or Canadians. And what is a bit amusing to your Pekingnologist is that even there are Russian scholar doubting if Beijing is trying to get some concessions from Moscow on this
Even Head of Russia-China Business Council Gennady Timchenko and CEO of a major fishing company Gleb Frank went to meet the Chinese ambassador in Moscow over this, so, let’s put it this way: Western capitals can relax a bit.
To sum it up, Beijing genuinely believes there is a risk in importing COVID infections through food and their packages - it is not faking it. As a result, Beijing has been doing a lot of work in disinfection at its ports of entry. The Chinese public is perhaps more paranoid (domestic social media didn’t help), so Beijing has set out to convince them the imported food available on the market is safe. In the meantime, the Western world views all this largely with confusion and suspicion.
The bottom line for Beijing?
As the pandemic cliche goes, “out of an abundance of caution.”
Penned by Zichen Wang, founder of Pekingnology, a personal newsletter that does NOT represent the views of anybody else.
Errors may well exist, so suggestions for corrections and feedback are welcome - feel free to reply or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org .