Canadian lobster exporters feel pinch of new COVID-19 testing in China
Lobster Council of Canada says 'we've hit a significant snag' because of delays caused by new tests
A recent coronavirus outbreak traced to a market in Beijing is disrupting Canadian live lobster exports to China.
New testing measures imposed in at least three cities — Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou— have led to cancelled lobster shipments from Nova Scotia this week and delays for shipments that do arrive.
"We've hit a significant snag," said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada.
"The latest news is that they will continue to do these random inspections, which has effectively caused many of the large shipments to stop."
Chinese authorities began testing for COVID-19 in imported food after an outbreak was traced to a cutting board used for salmon in the Xinfadi market in the Chinese capital.
China is a crucial market for Canadian lobster fishermen. Before the pandemic struck, China was edging closer to overtaking the United States as the top importer, with sales of live lobster to China reaching $457 million last year.
Random seafood shipments, including live lobster from Canada, are being held until test results come back.
"The tests can take up to 36 hours, which means that the product sits out of water for 36 hours, so there can be mortality issues that someone has to pay for," Irvine said.
The inspections have interrupted a rebound in live lobster sales to China after the market collapsed earlier in the year due to the pandemic.
Figures from Statistics Canada, first reported by seafood publication Undercurrent News, reveal the scale of the collapse.
In January, Canada sent 4,323 tonnes of live lobster worth $79.3 million in China. The majority of it was from Nova Scotia.
In February, sales fell to 46 tonnes — worth just $940,000.
"We've known since the start of the pandemic that there were going to be bumps in the road with regards to export markets. We've seen those challenges from day one," said Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan.
The hope is this setback is a blip.
"There's been no official closure of the borders or border ban on seafood products. It's just this testing regime that makes doing the business very, very risky," said Irvine.
"The effect of these inspections are that the live shippers just simply don't want to ship there to take the risk.
"I do know some shippers who are changing their terms of sale. If Chinese buyers want to pay for the product in advance and take the risk … of the inspections, they can still do that."
'It's completely unfounded,' says lobster council
Other industry associations are also speaking out, including the Fisheries Council of Canada and the National Fisheries Institute in Washington.
All say there is no scientific evidence that COVID-19 has been transmitted in food or food packaging, citing multiple public health agencies from the World Health Organization to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
"The bigger problem is that it's completely unfounded," said Irvine.
Unclear what Chinese government is doing
Earlier this week, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada told provincial officials and industry stakeholders the Chinese government has not notified Canada of what it is doing.
"There are no clear details on the type of products that will be targeted or the delay that may be caused for clearing customs as a result of testing," said a June 16 note. "However, there are indications that meat, poultry, aquatic products and fruit and vegetables may be subject to testing.
"The Government of Canada remains in close contact with the Canadian Mission in Beijing and will continue to seek further clarifications from official sources."
China wants assurances food is COVID-19 free
On Thursday night, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said Chinese authorities have asked Canada and other countries for "assurances" food is free of COVID-19.
"The General Administration of Customs China (GACC) has written to trading partners, including Canada, to officially request that government authorities provide assurances that food processing establishments eligible to export to China follow measures to prevent any COVID-19 contamination of food products during food production," spokesperson Christine Carnaffan said in an email response to CBC News.
"The Government of Canada continues to engage with Chinese counterparts to reassure China of the strong measures in place in Canada to ensure the safety of the food and food products exported from Canada."
The statement reiterated the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's position: "There is currently no scientific evidence that food or food packaging is a likely source or route of transmission of COVID-19. In addition, there have been no confirmed cases of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of the virus."