China customs cracks down on imports

Published on
July 15, 2013

A rash of reports on impounded imports suggests China is tightening its inspection regime for imported seafood.

New rules in force since 1 May mean all imported seafood and meat without certificates (there are 39 countries and areas are approved to export to China, all of them listed on Chinese government websites) will be strictly barred from Chinese seaports.

In a statement warning consumers to “be vigilant of labels on foreign imported seafood and meat,” China's quarantine body, the Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine (AQSIQ) promised to tighten supervision on aquatic products at Chinese ports.

AQSIQ claims its office in the southern city of Sanya recently destroyed 300 boxes of South American prawn imported from Thailand after finding evidence of vibrio parahemolyticus: the 3,240 kilogram cargo, worth USD 23,328 (EUR 17,785), was the first such shipment in Hainan carrying the bacteria, according to the AQSIQ. The bacteria, described by AQSIQ as “a germ that may cause people to feel stomach ache, throw up or have diarrhea” has been detected in shipments from America, Canada, Korea, Thailand and Taiwan since the AQSIQ stepped up testing in March.

Hints of a backlash against the public favoritism for imported seafood are also apparent. A lengthy report in the Qingdao Daily — the leading newspaper in China’s key seafood trade port — detailed how recently 24 tons of imported frozen Arctic sweet prawns “were all unqualified and returned back.” The newspaper railed against “importers of seafood which use ‘no pollution’ as their propaganda slogan but there are many instances of polluted imports.”

Quoting statistics provided by AQSIQ, the article claimed “lots of imported seafood were examined and found to be unfit. In the beginning of this year, more than 250 tons of frozen scads imported from Norway were examined of carrying Listeria monocytogenes.” The article also claimed that 54 tons of imported frozen whole squids were examined of carrying excessive amounts of cadmium.

Faced with daily food safety scandals, China has been trying to show it's improving its food safety regime. The China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) this spring emerged as a ministerial-level agency directly under the State Council. Since 2008, the agency had been downgraded to a position of lesser importance after a series of corruption scandals that resulted in the 2007 execution of Zheng Xiaoyu, the corrupt former head of the body that the CFDA replaced.

In one of its first acts the CFDA published a new list of pollutants banned in foods, setting limitations for the presence of lead, cadmium and mercury in foodstuffs. Both rice and seafood have been found to have high traces of cadium in Chinese food markets in the past year. However, the challenges are significant. The China Aquatic Products Promotion and Marketing Association (CAPPMA) this month warned that dining establishments in the wealthy south coast city of Guangzhou were misleadingly serving “dead and frozen” oysters as fresh, in a bid to cash in on the higher prices commanded by fresh product. “This leads to danger of food poisoning among consumers,” warned CAPPMA in a statement.

China has also been trying to clamp down on a thriving grey trade, common in China as suppliers seek to keep pace with demand for luxury food products. Veteran China seafood distributor and expert Scott Brown said first tier cities like Shanghai “have been trying to stamp out smuggled seafood trade in order to collect taxes on these goods.” While the opportunities are obvious in China — for instance EU food and drink exports to China jumped from EUR 1.2 billion (USD 1.6 billion) in 2007 to EUR 3.3 billion (USD 4.3 billion) in 2011 — getting into China has been a bureaucratic chore for many importers, who are required to ship through a licensed Chinese corporate entity. The use of grey channels and patchy cold chain and logistics networks in China has however caused worries over the safety of food products not going through the formal channels.

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