WHO, USDA reports refute Chinese concerns over COVID-19 traveling via cold chain

A World Health Organization (WHO) team studying the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak has released a report saying its spread to humans from the packaging of “cold-chain” food products is possible, but not likely.

According to the Associated Press, which obtained an advanced copy of the report, the WHO team – working in conjunction with Chinese researchers – determined COVID-19 can travel through the cold chain, but that the risk of transmission is much lower than through human-to-human transfer.

"While there is some evidence for possible reintroduction of SARS-CoV-2 through handling of imported contaminated frozen products in China since the initial pandemic wave, this would be extraordinary in 2019, whe[n] the virus was not widely circulating," the study said.

Over the past year, China has steadily ramped up inspections of imported seafood, ostensibly to protect the country from further spread of the virus. Last week, the head of the Chinese side of the joint team told Chinese media cold chain transmission “plays an important part in the origin and transmission” of the virus. 

But a new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Chinese food import controls and refusal rate over the past year found that while China has implemented a greater blockage rate for seafood imports, the refusals have been overwhelmingly related to non-COVID issues. The USDA report notes that “animal disease” has been cited by Chinese Customs as the most common reason for refusal.

The increased scrutiny at Chinese ports since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more testing and detention of imported shipments, with Chinese customs issuing 89 refusals to individual exporters in June 2020 and 81 in July 2020, compared to an average of 30 to 50 refusals per month between August 2019 and May 2020. From August 2019 to July 2020, China refused 117 shipments of Ecuadorian shrimp, equivalent to 2,000 metric tons, or 0.5 percent of the total volume of shrimp exports from Ecuador to China in the period. In July 2020, according to the report, Chinese inspectors found five positive samples of COVID-19 on 227,934 samples taken from packaging and containers bearing Ecuadorian shrimp. 

However, the longer-term view suggests China’s refusal rate on imported seafood product remains low, according to the USDA report. Based on a decade-long look back at China’s food import inspection, the report suggests that as China’s food safety regime has evolved and become more sophisticated, there has been an increase in refusals from relatively new sources of supply to China, like Ecuador, where exporters were less accustomed to meeting export requirements than counterparts from other nations with longer track records of exporting food to China. 

China’s increasingly demanding requirements for labeling and other “requirements for access” for food imports means that smaller-scale and developing-nation suppliers have curtailed their export efforts to the country, in turn potentially lowering the refusal rate, the USDA report found.

China’s refusals of food imports amounted to 64 refusals per USD 1 billion (EUR 850 million) of food imports between 2006 and 2019, while that figure dropped to 19 refusals per USD 1 billion of imports in 2018 and 15 refusals per USD 1 billion of imports in 2019.

Photo courtesy of Ralf Liebhold/Shutterstock


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