By ZHAO Xiaojuan
In early November, a worker at a cold storage facility in Tianjin tested positive for the coronavirus. The port was sealed off and more than 2 million people were tested. An investigation followed and on November 24, an official said at a press conference that the culprit had been found – frozen pig face imported from North America.
This is not a one-off incident. In the past few months, many new cases have been traced to imported cold chain products. Although foreign meatpacking companies with outbreaks in their plants are banned from exporting to China, the trickle of cold-chain related cases has not stopped. People have taken to social media to vent their frustrations. Why, they ask, can’t we ban foreign meat altogether?
The answer, in short, is that China needs imported meat. Domestic pork production plunged when the pig herd was decimated by African swine flu, sending pork prices to new highs. Inexpensive foreign pork has since been essential to stabilizing prices and meeting demand.
China imported 2.9 million tons of pork between January and August, a 133 percent increase from the same period last year, partially due to price differences. Since January, the price of imported frozen pork has been hovering around 20 yuan (US$3) a kilo, versus 48 yuan per kilo for fresh domestic pork, which would be much higher were it not for imports.
The situation is similar for other meat products. China spent US$4 million on 280,000 tons of poultry in the first eight months of the year, accounting for 12 percent of all US poultry exports, the highest for five years.
As it is impossible to do without imported meat, customs authorities have stepped up testing in hope of catching the virus before it flows into the market. There been an uptick in cases as testing has increased. “On the bright side, this shows that testing has been effective,” said LI Ning of China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment. He said the positivity rate is around one in twenty thousand samples. In most cases, the virus is found on the packaging.
Nevertheless, customers are worried and assurances go unheeded. Demand for foreign meat and seafood has suffered. One beef importer said that turnover time has increased by around 50 percent. Another importer complains of extra storage costs and delays to deliveries. Importers pick up the tab for disinfecting their storage spaces and must pay extra for prolonged usage of storage facilities while awaiting customs clearance.
If the already delicate balance of supply and demand is tipped, meat prices will soar again.