Chile's authorities take steps to calm Chinese fears over COVID-tainted salmon

In a videoconference with Sernapesca Director Alicia Gallardo, Chinese authorities confirmed that there are no restrictions on the importation of Chilean salmon, despite European salmon being blocked due to unfounded fears it had served as a carrier of the coronavirus.

Gallardo, the director of Chile’s national fishing service, also announced Chinese officials had carried out an unprecedented remote joint inspection of several Chilean salmon processing plants, according to a post on Sernapesca’s Twitter feed.

“China is NOT closed to Chilean exports of any kind, including salmon. The government of Chile, the Ministry of Foreign Relations, and [trade promotion agency] ProChile are working in coordination with their counterparts to keep trade open and consistent with WTO and Chile-China FTA obligations,” Chilean Undersecretary for International Economic Relations Rodrigo Yañez noted on Twitter.

According to Sernapesca, three plants in the Biobío and Los Lagos regions were selected for the remote inspection, where operators performed safety and biosecurity control procedures implemented by the companies. As part of the inspections, Sernapesca executives answered queries from their Chinese counterparts regarding the detection of positive cases of COVID-19 in plant personnel, and jointly reviewed the strict control measures undertaken by each company in coordination with health and Sernapesca authorities.

The moves came in reaction to an unfounded scare in China that imported salmon were infected with COVID-19, after health authorities found the virus on fish chopping boards in Beijing’s Xinfadi seafood market – the epicenter of a new cluster of COVID-19 infections.

Chile is not the only salmon-exporting country that has faced COVID-19-related trade issues with China. Seafood traders from across Europe have confirmed Beijing has halted imports of all fresh seafood products – removing salmon and other imported seafood products from supermarket shelves across China while authorities tested for traces of the virus in imports. China has also suspended all shipments of chickden from a Tyson plant in Springdale, Arkansas, U.S.A. and from German pork processor Toennies due to COVID-19 outbreaks in their production facilities.

In response to China's move, salmon farming industry association SalmonChile declared that the virus does not multiply in fish, which, added to Chile’s biosafety and production safety measures and “makes it highly unlikely that the COVID-19 virus is transmitted via farmed fish."

"Likewise, we affirm that the sanitary standards of our plants are very high and that the products follow a chain of sanitary protection until their final destination, where they are subjected to the hygienic and epidemiological conditions of the local market," it said.

SalmonChile noted the country's salmon products are inspected both by Chilean health authorities and those of the destination countries. In the specific case of China, “we understand that its authorities have intensified the analysis of samples in the food markets of its main cities and, to date, there have been no objections to our products.”

“All the plants and cultivation centers of the affiliated companies in our association care highly for their workers and in the midst of this pandemic they have implemented new measures to prevent the presence of COVID,” SalmonChile said. Measures association members are taking include the testing of workers, temperature controls, and increased sanitation of common spaces.

“Furthermore, salmon producing regions maintain the lowest prevalence rate of contagion in the country.” it said.

Despite proving there is no connection, Chinese seafood shoppers have been spooked by the supposed linkage between salmon and the coronavirus, with sales of imported seafood across China plummeting. That fear was exacerbated by top Chinese medical experts warning the public to avoid eating salmon.

"This problem can cause enormous damage to consumption and to the image of the country's salmon farming," Chile’s Salmon Council reported in a release, saying that “more comprehensive aid from the government may be necessary.” The council said no traces of COVID-19 have been found in imported salmon, citing comments made by Shi Guoqing, the deputy director of the Emergency Operations Center at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"All the evidence points to Xinfadi [seafood market] more than salmon," the director of the China Food Information Center, Zhong Kai, was cited as saying, adding that no contamination has been found in restaurants selling salmon, nor have infections been reported among people who have eaten the fish.

For its part, the Hong Kong publication The Standard, citing the Food Safety Center, reported that 16 samples of imported salmon, including products from Norway, Chile, Ireland, Iceland and Denmark, resulted negative in coronavirus detection tests.

Nonetheless, market observers see a difficult path forward for companies such as New World Currents (NWC), the commercial joint venture between Blumar, Marine Farm, and Cultivos Yadran formed specifically to sell in China, and which represents about 18 percent of Chile’s total sales in China. Former NWC partner Camanchaca also formed its own brand, Pier 33, to distribute directly in China.

“The [salmon] producers themselves are no longer exporting to China due to the uncertainty,” Gallardo told La Tercera. “Now, nobody is eating fish, because there is also a kind of collective panic. So the demand will decrease. The industry is diverting these shipments to other markets. We, as a health authority, have already contacted Chinese customs … to give assurances to that we are fulfilling our role, verifying compliance with regulations.”

China is the fifth-largest destination market for Chilean salmon, with exports exceeding 40,000 tons annually, according to Sernapesca. Chile exports USD 269 million (EUR 240 million) in salmon to China annually, but the health pandemic has already caused the value and volume of salmon exports to China to fall 24 percent and 17 percent, respectively, in the first four months of 2020 compared to the same period last year, Salmon Expert reported. 

Photo courtesy of Sernapesca


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