China blames ‘frozen food imports’ for bungling coronavirus crisis

Beijing tries to deflect criticism for its initial handling of the Covid-19 pandemic with a new narrative

China has weaponized Covid-19 testing on imported food to “disrupt trade” and punish countries critical of Beijing’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Authorities launched a major detection campaign for the Sars-Cov-2 pathogen on frozen and chilled food in June after a cluster of infections at a wholesale market in Beijing.

Since then, Chinese health officials have reported the virus on product packaging from 20 nations and suspended certain food imports.

“If you have trade partners you have to treat them fairly and give them a chance to be complicit,” Gudrun Gallhoff, of food safety at the European Union delegation to China, said earlier this month.

“Exporters needed more information on China’s testing methods and results,” she added.

Why has China not been more transparent in revealing scientific evidence to back up these claims?

Good question. But this what we know.

During a World Trade Organization meeting, Canada called China’s testing of imported foods and rejection of products that had positive nucleic acid tests “unjustified trade restrictions,” the Reuters news agency report

Frozen Food

It cited a Geneva-based trade official, who was briefed on the details but declined to be identified.

“Supported by Australia, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States, Canada argued that China had not provided scientific justification for the measures,” the official was quoted as saying.

In the past five months, Chinese health officials have claimed that they have detected traces of the coronavirus on a range of imported frozen food products or their packaging.

The list included shrimps from Ecuador, squid from Russia, fish from Norway and Indonesia, as well as beef from Brazil and New Zealand. German pork has also been targeted

“More and more evidence is showing that frozen seafood or meat products can bring viruses from outbreak countries into China,” Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week.

What has been the response to that statement?

The World Health Organization has disputed China’s findings and made it clear there is no hard evidence of transmission.

“[It is] highly unlikely that people can contract Covid-19 from food or food packaging,” the WTO stated.

Lack of transparency

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echoed that view, pointing out that the risk is “thought to be very low.”

A lack of transparency by President Xi Jinping’s administration has also created a backlash.

“Whenever a health authority performs a test and finds something, they should share the results,” a diplomat based in Beijing told Reuters after declining to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“We haven’t received one single lab analysis. Everyone is asking ‘Is it true? Did they really find anything?’ Everyone is surprised that no proof is given,” he added.

So why has that happened?

Many of the nations involved are convinced that China has singled them out. The evidence is certainly compelling after a WHO motion by Australia and the European Union called for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 back in May.

The investigation will center on Beijing’s response to the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year, which triggered the global pandemic.

So far, nearly 55 million people have been infected globally with more than 1.3 million dying of the virus, according to data released by the WHO. 

“We want accountability more than anyone,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, said at the time. 

What was China’s reaction to that news?

It was one of disbelief at first, coupled with a denial of responsibility, despite hard facts to the contrary.

Final decision

Blurring the lines between an earlier proposed resolution by Australia and the joint motion with the EU, the ruling Communist Party government reluctantly backed the final decision.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tried to spin a web of deceit after the motion was passed. “It is a totally different thing from the so-called independent inquiry pushed by the Australian side,” he said even though the resolution contained the line “impartial, independent and comprehensive” review.

Lydia Khalil, of the Lowy Institute in Australia, illustrated China’s reluctance after analyzing President Xi’s initial response to the epidemic.

“Globally, China has been heavily criticized for suppressing early information on Covid-19’s emergence, a decision that almost certainly exacerbated the human and economic costs of the global pandemic,” she said.

“According to one study, the CCP [China’s Communist Party] could have prevented a significant proportion of Covid-19 cases had they acted on the first warnings and enacted non-pharmaceutical measures [such as quarantines] weeks earlier than was the case,” Khalil wrote in a commentary for The Interpreter, which is part of the Sydney-based think tank.

Is this why China has started to target frozen food imports?

Probably, although Beijing insisted the actions were “provisional based on a scientific basis” and designed to “protect people’s lives to the maximum extent.”

Different approach

Still, China’s state-controlled media networks have taken a different approach.

The Global Times, which is owned by the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, the People’s Daily, published a report asking was the “Wuhan outbreak caused by imported frozen products?” 

“In the past when we did virus tracing, we’ve always been looking for intermediate hosts, highly likely an animal,” Yang Zhanqiu, the deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, told the nationalistic tabloid.

“It may be time to re-examine whether the outbreak in Wuhan started from one infected person or contaminated food,” he added.