On July 20, the United States made another submission to the SPS Committee targeting China’s trade restrictive measures taken as a response to COVID-19. In the submission, which is the U.S. statement made at the July 14-16 SPS Committee meeting, the United States said:
The United States would like to reiterate the concerns we have shared during the last two SPS Committee meetings regarding several measures China continues to implement, including testing requirements for imported foods and port-of-entry rejections of imported products when positive nucleic acid test results are reported, and suspension of imports from specific facilities.
China has not provided any science-based justification or testing results to support the need for, or efficacy of, these measures. After more than a year since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the Director-General of the WHO, the US Department of Agriculture, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasize that there is no credible evidence of food or food packaging associated with, or as a source of, viral transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus causing COVID-19.
Our understanding, that the risk is exceedingly low for transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humans via food and food packaging, is based upon the best available information from scientific bodies across the globe, including a continued international consensus.
As the world slowly begins the process of building back better, the unjustified trade restrictions adopted by China during the COVID-19 pandemic threaten global food supply chains, slow global recovery efforts, and further challenge global food security.
What the United States is referring to here are various Chinese measures that have restricted imports after the emergence of COVID-19. China started to impose import restrictions on certain food products after a June 2020 outbreak in Beijing that was linked to a fruit and vegetable wholesale market. After the outbreak, there were reports of China’s Customs authorities requiring overseas exporters to declare that their food is not contaminated by COVID-19; that they are taking measures to follow Chinese laws and international guidelines for food safety; and they agree to take "all necessary measures" to eliminate any safety risks. Chinese officials also reportedly met with trading partners to call for voluntary suspension of exports from facilities where COVID-19 cases were discovered. While acknowledging that there was no evidence that food can cause infection, Chinese officials said that they cannot rule out such a risk.
By July 2020, China suspended meat imports from 23 suppliers from Germany, Brazil, Europe and others (see here and here), including a Tyson chicken plant in Arkansas where hundreds of employees tested positive for COVID-19. Some countries, including Argentina, Canada, Ireland, and France, voluntarily suspended certain exports.
The rules and protocols for import suspensions were unclear until China released an official document with more details. On September 11, 2020, China’s General Administration of Customs issued the No. 103 Notice (link in Chinese) titled “Announcement on the Implementation of Emergency Preventive Measures for Foreign Manufacturers of Imported Cold-chain Foods with Novel Coronavirus Nucleic Acid Positive Results” (对检出新冠病毒核酸阳性的进口冷链食品境外生产企业实施紧急预防性措施的公告), establishing rules on suspending imports which have tested positive for COVID-19. In particular, the Notice states that if a foreign manufacturer's cold-chain food or its packaging tests positive for the COVID-19 nucleic acid either one or two times, Customs will suspend the company's Customs declaration for one week. After one week, import declarations may resume automatically. If a foreign manufacturer’s cold-chain food or its packaging tests positive three or more times, Customs will suspend the company’s Customs declaration for four weeks. After four weeks, import declarations may resume automatically.
China subsequently filed a notification (G/SPS/N/CHN/1173) of this new announcement with the SPS Committee.
As of February 2021, China had screened 1.5 million import samples and had reported positive tests for the coronavirus on imports from 20 countries, including shrimp from Saudi Arabia and Ecuador, fish from India, beef from New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina, pork from Germany, and salmon from Norway.
It is worth noting that also in February, China’s Customs agency issued ten measures to promote trade and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on trade. Among other things, these measures provided for the promotion and expansion of agricultural products and food imports. In particular, the measures call for increasing the number of countries and registered enterprises that are allowed to export agricultural products and food to China, accelerating the approval process of agricultural products and food, shortening the time for quarantine approval, and creating green channels for food imports. These measures are unlikely to change China’s existing import restrictions related to COVID-19, but they may compensate for food shortages that result from as a result of the import restrictions.
China’s COVID-related trade practices have drawn complaints from the United States and others, including the European Union and Canada, over the past two years. On November 13, 2020, the United States made a submission to the SPS Committee (G/SPS/GEN/1863) on this issue, and made another one on March 30, 2021 (G/SPS/GEN/1900). The United States and China, along with other countries, have previously discussed the issue at the SPS meetings on November 5-6, 2020 and March 25-26, 2021.