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 normalise, producers encountered a new challenge as China started detecting coronavirus in beef imports. The latest wave of such reports occurred in November, when various Chinese cities said they had found the virus on beef sourced from Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina. A similar series of reports over the summer resulted in the temporary suspension of exports from 9 processing plants in Brazil and 7 in Argentina.
of the Braziian beef exports go to China
In addition to the bans, Chinese authorities have also imposed strict testing requirements which have disrupted trade and created uncertainty for both suppliers and importers. The issue is not limited to South America, as China has reportedly found 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, white fish from India and Myanmar, salmon from Norway, crab from Chile, and squid from Russia, among others.
Recently, however, trade partners have begun to push back, claiming the concerns are unfounded, denouncing the negative impact on trade, and questioning the Chinese government’s true intent.
Growing concern amongst South American beef producers
In recent years, China has become South America’s largest buyer of beef, accounting for an estimated 75% and 58% of Argentina and Brazil’s exports, respectively. Although trade has remained robust during the pandemic, producers are starting to worry about Chinese authorities’ increased scrutiny and testing of imported meat.
The measures implemented by China include 'complete elimination' and 'strict refusal of entry' 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's State Council established a plan requiring comprehensive disinfection measures for imported foods before workers are exposed during handling.
In supermarkets, some imported meat now displays a sticker declaring it to be virus-free, and other products contain a QR code through which consumers can access information such as country of origin and quarantine inspection certificates.
These measures have so far resulted in the suspension of imports from 99 suppliers across 20 countries, including those from Argentina and Brazil.
2020 was practically a lost year for the industry.
One of the latest such bans involves Gorina, an Argentinian beef processor, whose exports to China have been halted for 4 weeks, after authorities in Nanjing detected coronavirus on the packaging of Gorina’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, which represented between 55% and 60% of its total sales.
“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 Argentine Association of Angus.
Although Gorina is cooperating with Chinese authorities, some Argentinian industry participants are skeptical about the accusations, and speculate that the true intent of the controls is to restrict trade and drive down prices.
"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 Argentine Meat Exporters. “The price of frozen boneless meats exported to China decreased by 34% if we compare the prices of October to the ones at the end of last year.”
Negative long-term implications post-Covid-19
China’s suspicions over food imports show no signs of abating, with the latest coronavirus case involving Brazilian beef reported as recently as January 3.
Inspection requirements have already led to a noticeable drop in beef availability in China, with supermarkets reporting shortages due to logistical delays caused by testing. Importers are also placing fewer orders due to higher costs to meet customs requirements, and the risk of losing entire shipments in case of a positive test.
As long as the coronavirus is not fully eliminated in producing countries, the Chinese government is likely to maintain heightened testing requirements. Authorities even found traces of the virus from beef imported from New Zealand, which had largely eliminated local transmission.
A “new normal” with protracted restrictions on trade could result in lower volumes and prices for South American suppliers, as purchasers turn to domestic sources of protein, such as pork and poultry, which may be deemed safer. Countries with lower coronavirus transmission such as Australia and New Zealand could also be favoured.
Beyond the immediate effect on trade, producers are also concerned about the long-term reputational impact 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.
While imported products have been traditionally seen as safer, higher-quality alternatives than their domestic counterparts, 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, positioning it as a safe and premium product.
“Before the pandemic, for six straight years, we went to the yearly international meat exhibition held in Shanghai to promote Argentine Angus beef”, says 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.”
Nonetheless, Harris is hopeful that the new controls and restrictions will only be temporary.
“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.”
Skepticism from the international community
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.
Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said recently that instead of having originated in Wuhan, the coronavirus could have entered China through imported seafood or meat and their packaging.
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?”.
Nonetheless, in a statement to The Associated Press, the World Health Organisation 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.
Pushback by China’s trade partners is also increasing. Canada has brought a complaint to the World Trade Organisation, while New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern publicly questioned China’s findings.
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 that local authorities were not able to provide any evidence supporting their claims.
The lack of evidence provided by Chinese authorities is one of the main sources of skepticism from the international community.
“I have serious doubts about what China is reporting. There are a lot of technical questions - like which type of testing kit they’re using - that they haven’t answered,” says Gerardo Leotta, Clinical and Industrial Bacteriologist, and researcher at the CONICET, Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council.
“We have to remember that the main 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”.
In the meantime, no other major importers have reported similar findings to those of China.
“What we are seeing happening in China is what the WHO calls an infodemic, the spread of misleading or fabricated news”, says Leotta. “The way we can combat this is through truthful, science-based information that reaches consumers”.