China has suspended poultry imports from a Tyson Foods Inc plant where hundreds of employees tested positive for COVID-19, stoking concerns over the broader implications for US and global meat exports.
All products from the plant in Springdale, Arkansas, where Tyson is based, that are about to arrive in China or have arrived at the country’s ports are to be seized by customs.
The suspension announced on Sunday is an about-face from just a few days ago, when Chinese officials said that food was unlikely to be responsible for a fresh virus outbreak in Beijing.
The move is a potential new threat to meat plants across the world that have seen slaughter disruptions because of the virus. In the US, hundreds of workers have become ill, and dozens have died. There has also been an uptick in infections at facilities in Brazil and Germany.
The latest outbreak in China had been blamed on imported salmon after the head of a food market where clusters were detected said that the virus had been traced to a chopping board used by a fish seller.
Fears over whether food can transmit viruses had led salmon to be boycotted in the Asian country.
If China continues to suspend shipments based on COVID-19 cases reported at processing plants, it could threaten to undermine promised agricultural purchases as part of the Washington-Beijing trade deal.
Tyson in a statement on Sunday said that it was looking into the report, citing that the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say there is no evidence that virus transmission is associated with food.
The company late on Friday said that 13 percent of its workers had tested positive for the virus at plants in northwest Arkansas.
China has backed off from its previous stance linking food to virus cases.
A customs official at a briefing on Friday said that the country was taking the advice of international organizations that there is a low risk of imported food transmitting the virus, and no food restrictions would be imposed.
However, the move to block the Tyson shipments runs counter to that, and reverts the country back to increasing its scrutiny over imported food.
Meanwhile, a German abattoir last week voluntarily halted pork exports to China after workers were found to be infected.
China’s customs authorities had started testing all shipments of imported meat for the virus, while officials in some major cities were also checking the products at domestic markets.
In a statement last week, China Customs said that all 32,174 samples of imported seafood, meat, vegetables, fruit and other related products had tested negative.
The country’s scrutiny might end up having a big effect on global food shipments. Its surging imports of meat had helped to buoy US and Brazilian producers of poultry, pork and beef before the nation’s virus outbreak in January and as global trade has staged a nascent recovery in the past few weeks with the country exiting lockdowns.
Meanwhile, PepsiCo Food (China) Co Ltd (百事食品中國) said that it shut a food plant in Beijing after a COVID-19 case was confirmed earlier in the week.
The company conducted tests on all employees at the plant and quarantined 480 workers, even though they all tested negative, one of its officials, Fan Zhimin, told a local government briefing.
PepsiCo China later said in a WeChat post that none of its beverage plants in the country have reported any cases of the virus.
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