China said a handful of packaging samples of imported shrimp tested positive for the coronavirus, raising questions again over whether the pathogen can spread through food or frozen products.
The virus tested positive on the outside of about five shrimp packages and the inside of one shipping container, said China’s General Administration of Customs. The samples were from three Ecuadorian plants, and imports from those processors will be halted, it said. A leading Ecuadorian shrimp exporter disputed the findings.
“The test result doesn’t mean the virus is contagious, but reflects the loopholes in companies’ food safety regulations,” said Bi Kexin, director of the food import and export safety bureau in the customs department. “Customs will further strengthen control of the origins of imported cold-chain food.”
China last month pointed to imported salmon as a possible culprit for Beijing’s fresh COVID-19 outbreak, sparking a boycott of the fish as supermarkets took the produce off their shelves. China also began mass testing of cold food imports at ports, and blocked shipments from meat plants abroad that reported infections among workers.
Evidence suggests that it’s extremely unlikely for the virus to be transmitted through food, said Gorjan Nikolik, associate director of seafood at Rabobank.
“It’s a typical food scare,” he said. “I expect them to be very short-lived.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a fresh statement on the matter, saying there’s no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through food or food packaging.
Ecuadorian shrimp exporter Santa Priscila questioned the findings and lamented the blow to the industry’s reputation, saying Chinese officials had refused to provide information on the testing in recent weeks.
“They found one positive non-contagious test ‘inside the wall of the container’ as a result of 227,934 samples taken from the containers, that is 0.0000043 percent,” Santa Priscila President and founder Santiago Salem said in a statement.
Chinese officials have also agreed with global experts that imported food poses a low risk of transmitting the virus. That’s led to confusion overseas over why China is continuing to test and halt shipments.
The tests are “an important measure to prevent the risk of the virus being transmitted from imported cold chain food channels,” Bi said. “This is a necessary measure taken to protect the health of the people and does not interrupt normal international trade.”
Employees in some countries are still working even after becoming infected with the virus, raising the risk of food contamination, Bi said. Because there are epidemic clusters at some overseas facilities, China halted meat imports from a total of 23 plants, including Brazil, the U.K., the U.S. and Germany, he said.
For shrimp, China is a much bigger buyer than it is for salmon, Rabobank’s Nikolik said. Chinese purchases are on the same scale as the U.S. and Europe, and Ecuador is a leading supplier, he said.
Last year, Ecuador exported $3.2 billion of shrimp, including about $1.4 billion to China in shipments that take about three weeks to arrive.
China’s customs authorities also tested a total of 227,934 samples and the rest of the samples were negative, it said. The samples which tested positive had been delivered to ports in Dalian and Xiamen.