China's sweeping COVID controls put frozen food importers on ice

The WHO says the risk of catching COVID-19 from frozen food is low, but China has repeatedly sounded alarms after detecting the virus on packaging of products ranging from German pork knuckles to Ecuadorian shrimp, triggering disruptive import bans.

China, which has used drastic measures to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, this week tightened restrictions requiring “full coverage” testing and disinfection of imported food products, following a smattering of positive samples detected on beef, pork and seafood.

The country has suspended imports of 99 suppliers from 20 countries, the National Health Commission said on Thursday.

Beijing argues that such measures are needed prevent the import of the virus, which has been largely contained domestically. A seafood market in the central city of Wuhan is widely believed to be the origin of the pandemic that emerged late last year and has now killed more than 1.25 million people.

The clampdown has caused upheaval in parts of China’s cold chain logistics network and sparked grumbling among diplomats in Beijing that the effort is politically driven, with critics saying the measures are costly and unnecessary.

Last week, cold chain facilities in the northern port city of Tianjin were shuttered when a 38-year-old frozen food worker who tested positive for the virus was linked to a 28.1 tonne shipment of frozen German pork knuckles.

“We can’t import any seafood as our warehouses have not finished rectification work yet,” said an importer in Henan province who manages logistics for imported seafood and fruit.

“It started in October and it has been over a month now and I don’t expect it would be finished by the end of the year,” said the importer, asking not to be identified.

While scientists say that chances of infection from frozen food are low, Chinese authorities say two dock workers in Qingdao caught the virus last month from the packaging of frozen cod - an assertion that some experts have questioned.