China is set to enforce its new rules governing import and export food safety on January 1, 2022. The Measures of the People's Republic of China for the Administration of Import and Export Food Safety (进出口食品安全管理办法 ) (link in Chinese) were adopted by the General Administration of Customs of China (GACC) on March 12, 2021, and its official English version was recently published. The new measures come at a time when China's food imports and exports have been increasing significantly and facing non-traditional safety risks including the COVID pandemic, according to the GACC (link in Chinese). Compared to the current version, the new measures provide for more details on the GACC’s overseas food safety inspection and assessment and on the GACC’s protocols to mitigate food safety risks. It also adds obligations for domestic food importers in ensuring food safety, and clarifies the re-inspection rights of food producers and traders.
The big picture
The measures integrate several regulations on food safety management and rules governing specific food such as meat, dairy, and aquatic products. As a result, when the new measures come into force next year, the current version of the Import and Export Food Safety Measures adopted in 2011 will be replaced, and other specific measures on exported honey, aquatic products, meat products and dairy products will also be abolished.
The measures also highlight the importance of international agreements. Article 4 states that “import and export food producers and operators shall undertake import and export food production and operation activities in accordance with any international treaty or agreement entered into or acceded to by China and the laws, regulations, national food safety standards of China.” Even though the measures require that all imported foods comply with Chinese laws and standards, Article 9 also states that “special requirements of any international treaty or agreement entered into or acceded to by China” shall apply if they exist.
Management of imported food chain
Compared to the current version, the new measures set out more detailed rules, based on which the GACC can conduct overseas food safety inspection and assessment. In specific situations, including when one nation/region is applying to export a new type of food to China for the first time, or experiencing a significant outbreak of animal or plant disease, or undergoing a significant change to its food safety laws and regulations or structural changes, the measures authorize the GACC to initiate assessment and examination of foreign food safety laws and regulations, organizational structure for food safety administration, prevention and control measures for animal and plant disease, and other measures that deal with food safety and health control. (Articles 11, 12 and 13)
Such examination can occur in various forms, including “material examinations, video inspection, and on-site inspection,” or a combination thereof. (Article 14) The measures also provide for the procedure, termination and extension of such assessment and examination.
Similar to the current rules, the measures specify registration and filing requirements for foreign exporters and domestic importers. For instance, overseas production enterprises that export food to China shall register with the GACC. (Article 18) This is an implementation of Article 96 of China’s Food Safety Law. On this matter, the GACC also issued the Regulations on the Registration and Administration of Overseas Manufacturers of Imported Food, which sets out procedures and documents for registration. The registration requirement has been criticized by some trading partners as “overly burdensome” and “beyond the extent necessary to protect against food safety risks.”
Other players in the sales chain, including overseas food exporters and agents, as well as domestic food importers, are required to make a filing with the customs agency. (Article 19)
The measures require food packaging and labelling to meet the Chinese requirements, and set forth specific packaging requirements for cold fresh meat products, aquatic products, and dietary supplements. (Article 30)
The measures also set forth some requirements for domestic food importers. For instance, they are required to establish an audit system for “overseas exporters and overseas production enterprises”, and to review their “food safety risk control measures” and ensure that the food complies with Chinese laws and standards. (Article 22) This is consistent with the requirements set forth in Article 94 of the Food Safety Law.
Management of exported food chain
For food exports, the measures require exported food to "comply with the requirements stipulated in the standards of the importing country (region) or contracts” and “international treaties and protocols” when applicable. (Article 38)
In addition, producers of exported food are also required to meet Chinese legal requirements. For instance, they are required to “set up a complete and traceable control system for food safety and sanitation” and “ensure that the export[ed] food is produced, processed and stored in consistent compliance with Chinese laws and regulations.” (Article 44)
Like the current rules, producers of exported food, as well as plantations and farms for raw materials of exported food, shall “file a record with the GACC.” (Article 40 and 42) In addition, China’s Food Safety Law requires all food manufacturers to obtain a license, and they could be subject to on-site verification. (Article 35 of Food Safety Law)
In the event the country/region to which Chinese food is exported also requires Chinese companies to register through government recommendation, a practice that is similar to the Chinese registration requirement for foreign food producers, the GACC will be responsible for fulfilling such duty. (Article 43)
Food safety issues
The current rules authorize the GACC to take actions when there are food safety risks, but the new measures provide for more details. For instance, in the event that the imported food poses potential safety hazards, such as that the imported food has some quality or safety issues or there are food safety incidents in foreign nations, the GACC may take “control measures as increasing the proportion for supervision and sampling inspection on the relevant import food” and require the submission of “inspection reports issued by the accredited test agency.” (Article 34)
In more serious situations, the measures authorize the GACC to suspend or ban imports when the exporting country/region is experiencing “a significant epidemic in flora and fauna” or “significant change in food safety system” that affects its food safety ; or “imported food contaminated by pathogens of epidemic”; or “foreign food producers are in serious violation of Chinese laws and regulations”; or in other scenarios where there is evidence of “significant potential safety hazards” in food. (Article 35)
Such import suspension or ban may be lifted, if certain criteria are met. (Article 36)
If imported food fails to meet the food safety standards or there is evidence that it poses potential hazards to human health, import will be suspended, and food will be recalled following the same procedure as with domestic food recall. (Article 37)
For both imports and exports, producers and operators may apply for a re-inspection if they object to the GACC's inspection results. However, the re-inspection may be rejected in one of the three scenarios, including when test results show microbiological indicators exceed the criteria. (Article 67)
It also sets forth requirements for transit food (Article 66), which is not regulated in the current rules.
The measures also provide for administrative penalties, including fines, for providing false information during paper filing, failing to cooperate with the GACC in inspection, refusing to comply with the labeling requirements, or other violations of the Food Safety Law.