Nova Scotia

Canadian live lobster industry warned to expect new Chinese customs measures

The Lobster Council of Canada issued a special bulletin this week telling live seafood shippers to expect to participate in the China Import Food Enterprise Registration system in the future, which currently requires Chinese-language labelling and identifiers on processed seafood packages.

Tracing measures issued in January required Chinese-language labelling on processed seafood

Freshly caught lobsters are pictured. Live lobster exports may soon be subject to new customs requirements that currently only apply to processed foods. (CBC)

Canada's $454 million live lobster export business in China is being told to prepare for new Chinese customs requirements implemented due to COVID-19.

Additional Chinese tracing measures — known as Decrees 248 and 249 — took effect in January for all processed food imported into China and have since caused headaches for some Canadian companies.

The new measures require Chinese-language labelling and identifiers inside and outside of packages, as well as registration in the China Import Food Enterprise Registration (CIFER) system operated by the General Administration of Customs China.

Paperwork problems at the border

In a May 25 industry briefing, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said the food industry is reporting paperwork problems.

"Some are experiencing issues at the border/ports in China because their registrations have insufficient information OR they have multiple accounts and registrations causing paperwork mismatches with information in CIFER," states the presentation, obtained by CBC News.

"Many are experiencing difficulties updating their accounts and registration information."

Special bulletin issued to lobster industry

So far, the rules apply only to processed seafood like frozen or cooked products.

But this week the Lobster Council of Canada issued a special bulletin to its members.

"It is my understanding that to date the CIFER system is not required to be used by the live lobster sector, however, we expect China to initiate a process that will require live shippers to participate in the future," executive director Geoff Irvine wrote on June 13.

Geoff Irvine is executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada. (Paul Withers)

"We would expect it simply because it doesn't make a lot of sense that if they make you register for frozen lobster or frozen food products, that they wouldn't make you register for live types of products as well," Irvine told CBC News.

"So it may not happen. But I guess part of our role as a trade organization is to be ready and ensure that our members are ready."

Irvine said most processing and live shipping companies have hired people to navigate these technical issues.

He's heard of "a few hiccups" but so far lobster processors seem to be adjusting.

Fears China will use rules 'to hold us hostage'

Osborne Burke is president of the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance. He recently cancelled two shipments purchased from another processor because they lacked Chinese language labelling inside the package. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Osborne Burke is president of the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance and general manager of the Victoria Co-operative which exports processed shellfish to China.

He recently cancelled two shipments he bought from another processor because they had not added the Chinese language labelling inside the package. The processor was also unwilling to reopen each shipment to relabel it.

"If we are going to run into that kind of problem, then we're just not going to ship our product," Burke said. 

"We don't want to get into a problem where they use their latest decrees … to hold us hostage once they get the product."

Burke said the new requirements are confusing, and it's not clear to exporters what Chinese customs officials are really asking for.

"I think they are continually looking for excuses to seize product or control it in some shape or manner. We're not interested in getting into that kind of a dispute with them," he told CBC News.

Other fish to fry

Meanwhile, live lobster shipper Stewart Lamont of Tangier Lobster in Nova Scotia, said he's more concerned about the impact of ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns in China and getting flights out of Halifax.

"We're looking and focused on the fundamentals of just doing any business whatsoever as opposed to the subtleties of these potential regulations," Lamont said. 

Irvine said in a meeting with CFIA officials in Ottawa last week the agency "did not have any clear direction from China customs."

Just another issue

"It's just another one of the many market access issues that we're experiencing from Europe, from the U.S., from all of our key markets, where we have to be ready, we have to prepare and we have to communicate well amongst each other," he said. 

"So I can't really compare it to any other ones except to just to say that these issues never seem to go away. And it's important we're ready for them."

In a statement to CBC News, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it has not received any indication from China to add live shipments to its requirements.

"The new, online China Import Food Enterprise Registration (CIFER) system does not include the requirement or capability to register exporters of live aquatic species, aquatic establishments to the CIFER system," it said in a statement.


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.