Details have been sparse, but there’s still no evidence the virus can be transmitted through food.
On Sunday, the Chinese government announced it would suspend imports of poultry from a Tyson plant in Springdale, Arkansas. By Tuesday morning, the country had also paused imports from a Brazilian beef supplier and a British pork company. All had reported cases of Covid-19 at their facilities.
The announcements came nearly a week after rumors began circulating about the origins of a new outbreak in Beijing that has been linked to an outdoor food market. Some reports indicated that traces of Covid-19 had been found on a cutting board used for imported salmon. Across the capital, salmon swiftly vanished from supermarket shelves, and diners rushed to cancel reservations at restaurants serving the fish, the New York Times reports. According to the Food and Drug Administration, there is no evidence that food can transmit Covid-19.
Chinese officials later shifted the blame away from the imported seafood, saying the virus was likely spread by someone in the market. All the same, China has ramped up testing of food imports for traces of Covid-19. According to Reuters, 30,000 samples of imported meat, seafood, fruits, and vegetables were tested between June 11 and June 17 in Tianjin, the main port for Beijing. This sparked concern among importers and exporters that ramped-up testing would result in delayed orders and supply chain disruptions.
“Covid-19 transmission is person-to-person. If you have an outbreak like you had in Beijing, then it happened person-to-person. You don’t get 200 people sick from some imported food.”
The announcement from China’s General Administration of Customs did not explain why this specific Tyson plant, P5842, was the subject of the suspension. Tyson on Friday did report hundreds of positive Covid-19 tests among its workforce in Arkansas; that announcement may have had some bearing on the decision. Officials in the United States were quick to denounce the suspension. “I don’t know whether China is playing politics or just making bad judgments,” Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson told the Associated Press.
Hutchinson has a point, according to Ben Chapman, a professor of food safety at North Carolina State University. “The thing that gives me some heartburn on this is that there’s no information,” he says.
China hasn’t disclosed specifics about its testing methods, but Bloomberg reported the country is using nucleic acid tests, which may detect viral RNA. A key factor: These tests may not determine whether or not the sample is capable of transmitting the virus. Chapman says these tests may be far more likely to turn up residual bits of nucleic acid from long-dead virus particles than from infectious Covid-19 residue. Without data transparency, there’s no way of knowing exactly what Chinese customs authorities are doing, and it’s impossible to know whether or not banning meat imports might actually have an impact on the spread of Covid-19. And if authorities announce that they’ve found Covid-19 in meat imports without clarifying whether or not the sample is actually dangerous, consumers might panic.
Furthermore, it’s extremely unlikely any virus clinging to the outside of the packaging could survive the journey from a U.S. processing plant to an open-air market in China and infect people there, says Dr. Martin Wiedmann, a food safety professor at Cornell University. “There’s no food safety issue here,” he says, adding that the virus is very sensitive to stomach acid. “Covid-19 transmission is person-to-person. If you have an outbreak like you had [in Beijing], then it happened person-to-person. You don’t get 200 people sick from some imported food,” he says.
So why ban meat imports? “It could be— we’ve seen this in the past —food and food safety have been used as a non-tariff trade barrier for a long time,” Chapman says. “In the absence of the public health data, I think that’s a fair question to ask.” To wit, former U.S. trade representative for China Jeff Moon told the Associated Press that the country may simply be reminding the Trump administration of the importance of its continued purchases of U.S. meat. “China can choose to implement this ban for as long as it wants to or if it thinks it is useful and appropriate, it can lift it tomorrow,” he said.
“If you test enough food for enough pathogens, you’re going to find something.”
Moon’s explanation might help clarify why the country chose to suspend imports from a single Tyson plant when outbreaks at meat processing facilities are quite widespread in the United States. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, which has been tracking confirmed cases of the virus at food production facilities nationwide, 249 meatpacking plants have confirmed cases of Covid-19. Also, U.S. meatpackers have only been exporting chicken to China for the last few months after China lifted a four-year ban on U.S. poultry imports in late 2019. Poultry was banned in 2015 after a U.S. outbreak of avian influenza.
Of course, it’s also possible that China’s meatpacker suspensions are part of an effort to deflect blame for the outbreak away from potential issues with its own testing and tracing efforts. “If you test enough food for enough pathogens, you’re going to find something,” says Wiedmann, of the country’s extensive import sampling.
Chapman says he’s not optimistic China will release its food-testing data set and answer some of these questions. In the meantime, he’s applying for funding to learn more about the persistence of Covid-19 on surfaces typical for food processing plants and packaging. Without any data on the potential spread from food or its wrappers, he says it makes more sense to focus resources on person-to-person transmission. “I understand knee-jerk approaches because we’re trying to do what we can, but we also have to make sure that they’re risk-based and the best use of our limited resources.”