Seafood industry moves to quash rumors of Beijing’s COVID-19 spike being linked to salmon

China has halted shipments of salmon from Europe after it was incorrectly linked to a new coronavirus outbreak in Beijing.

Shipments were frozen after the virus was discovered on fish chopping boards in Beijing’s Xinfadi seafood market, the epicenter of a new cluster of COVID-19 infections.

A European Commission spokesman said “there is no formal ban or import restriction in place”, but that seafood traders confirmed Beijing has halted imports of all fresh seafood products, according to the South China Morning Post. Salmon and other imported seafood products have been removed from supermarket shelves across China while authorities test for traces of the virus in imports, according to the newspaper. It also reported European air freight carrier Cargolux circulated an internal memo saying “a temporary ban has been put on all perishable shipments (e.g. fresh meat, fresh fish, vegetables, seafood and fruits)” to various airports in China.

SeafoodSource previously reported Chinese seafood shoppers have been spooked by the potential linkage between salmon and the coronavirus and that sales of imported seafood across China have plummeted. That fear has been exacerbated by top Chinese medical experts warning the public to avoid eating salmon.

“We have yet to find out whether human beings transmitted the virus to salmon, or salmon contracted the virus first,” Zeng Guang, a senior expert with the National Health Commission, said in an interview with state media on Sunday, 14 June. He warned Beijing residents not to eat raw salmon or purchase imported seafood, according to Bloomberg.

China’s Center for Diseases Prevention and Control Chief Epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said that the virus can survive on the surface of frozen food for up to three months and that the agency “highly suspects” contaminated goods as the source of the latest outbreak, Bloomberg reported.

However, seafood trade groups in the United States and Europe are fighting back against what they’re calling misinformation being spread in China.

“It is likely that a worker was the source of contamination,” the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing the U.S. seafood industry, said in a press release. “Do not be misled by sensational reports.  The facts are clear.”

The NFI statement pointed to a World Health Organization statement that food has not been implicated in the transmission of COVID-19. And it recirculated a quote from Scott Gottlieb, who most recently served as the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under President Donald Trump.

“The idea it hitched a ride on fish is highly implausible.  I mean it is absurd,” he told CNBC. “I can’t see any plausible scenario where this virus rode in on a salmon.”

The NFI also cited the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Norwegian Food Safety Agency, The European Food Safety Authority, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the Chilean National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service, the Asian Fisheries Science Journal, and researchers from University College London and North Carolina State University, which have all issued statements saying there is no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can infect or be passed along to other humans through aquatic animals.

"Simply stated, there is no connection between seafood and COVID," NFI President John Connelly said.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is making its own effort to clarify the situation, with Shi Guoqing, deputy director of the CDC’s emergency response center, hosting a press conference on Tuesday, 16 June, to refute links between the spread of COVID-19 and salmon.

“We currently have no evidence to suggest that salmon is the host or intermediate host of the coronavirus. In the contaminated area of Xinfadi Market related to this new outbreak, there is indeed salmon product found to be contaminated in the coronavirus test. But no virus has been detected on the salmon product that has not yet entered the contaminated area.”

At the press conference, Zhong Kai, director of the China Food Information Center, said there was no trace of the virus on the salmon before it reached the market.

"At present, all the evidence points to Xinfadi, rather than to salmon,” Zhong aid.

No contamination has been found in restaurants selling salmon, and no infections have been found among people who eat the fish, he added. Also, there have been no COVID-19 outbreaks related to imported salmon in any other cities. The virus, however, has also been found on the salmon cutting boards at Beijing’s Jingshen Seafood Market.

Acknowledging that new confirmed cases of COVID-19 traced to a food market in Beijing had caused “uncertainty and speculation in many parts of the value chain,” and that there had been “several unsubstantiated rumors” connecting the outbreak with a seller of imported seafood, the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) has moved to reassure consumers and buyers that Norwegian seafood is safe.

In its latest update on the issue, the NSC said that there are no official statements connecting these incidents with neither seafood nor salmon, and that the origins of this new outbreak remain unclear.

It also stressed that the coronavirus does not affect seafood safety, that there are no known cases of infection via food or water, and also that the Norwegian Food Safety Authority states that seafood products from Norway are safe to eat.

NSC Global Operations Manager Anders Nordøy Snellingen confirmed that in order to ensure communication, the council was sharing its latest information with local partners and customers.

“Our understanding is that comprehensive control of fresh foods has been introduced to any goods going into Beijing,” he said.

“Of course, the links being made in some media cases between salmon and the virus outbreak is unfortunate. We need facts on the table, and both WHO, FAO and The Norwegian Food Safety Authority are clear in their communication regarding this."

So far this year, some 9,600 metric tons (MT) of Norwegian salmon has been exported to China, representing a year-on-year decrease of 5 percent.

For 2019 as a whole, this trade totaled 23,500 MT, worth NOK 1.6 billion (USD 167.9 million, EUR 149.2 million).

Bloomberg reported China imported around USD 686 million (EUR 611 million) worth of salmon in 2019.

Photo courtesy of Sorbis/Shutterstock


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