China has defended its actions on coronavirus at a meeting of a World Trade Organization (WTO) committee.

The United States and Canada expressed concerns on China’s procedures affecting trade in food and agricultural products at the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures. The U.S. had previously raised the topic at the last SPS meeting in late June.

Chinese representatives said the steps were provisional, science-based, in agreement with WTO rules and those of international organizations, and aimed at protecting people’s lives.

Reports from China have included detection of coronavirus on packages of shrimp from Saudi Arabia, fish from India, beef from Brazil and Argentina, pork from Germany, salmon from Norway and shrimp from Ecuador. Chinese customs has been doing nucleic acid testing for COVID-19 on imported cold chain foods, the inner and outer packaging, and containers.

EU position on China action
Officials from the European Union said they regret the outbreak has led a few countries to adopt trade restrictions for agri-food products that are not science based, targeted or proportionate to the risk. The EU was “very concerned” about “unnecessary” additional requirements in the form of tests, inspections or certificates on imported food products.

“It is regrettable that the People’s Republic of China. . . is imposing COVID-19 related measures on imported cold-chain foods without providing a risk assessment based on science to justify these measures. If individual members insist on additional, unnecessary verification and testing measures, the situation could easily lead to a global spiral towards imposing unjustified import controls in the agri-food chain.”

The EU asked China to share its risk assessment to justify the emergency measures and to explain why they are considered proportionate. It also wanted to know the expected date when the measures will end.

Guidance from China requires packaging of imported cold chain products to be disinfected and subject to nucleic acid testing on entry to the country prior to storage and distribution.

Brazil raised the Philippines’ ban on poultry imports after detecting SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, in a surface sampling on Brazilian chicken meat. The Philippines said that while international guidelines indicate the transmission of COVID-19 through food is very low, the fact that it is possible a person may become infected by touching a contaminated surface or object should not be dismissed.

Other trade issues and SPS anniversary
A total of 39 trade concerns were raised at the meetings on Nov. 2 to 6 and 13 including 19 issues addressed for the first time by the committee.

Brazil highlighted Mexico’s import restrictions on pork. The EU and Russia asked the Republic of Korea about a lack of progress on pending applications for authorization of beef imports, while Mexico took issue with Honduras’ restrictions on pasteurized dairy products. Peru challenged Ecuador about import barriers on grapes and onions.

Canada raised concerns on India’s import requirements for pulses. Russia voiced problems regarding alleged delays in Malaysia’s approval procedures for meat and dairy imports while Peru took issue with the EU’s restrictions on its exports of chocolate and cocoa products.

In opening remarks at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the WTO agreement on SPS Measures earlier this month, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff said food safety continues to be a major concern for all WTO members.

“The SPS Agreement recognizes the need to protect health and ensure food safety, while aiming to avoid unnecessary barriers to trade. The work of the SPS Agreement is not done. Recent studies on food safety, animal and plant health have shed light on the human health implications and economic relevance of SPS measures,” he said.

“SPS risks can have devastating effects. Limited capacity to meet food safety, animal and plant health requirements is often one of the major obstacles for producers in developing countries to engage in trade in agricultural products.”

The next regular meeting of the SPS Committee is scheduled for March 25 and 26, 2021.

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