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Chinese consumers, markets, importers wary of imported food amid surge in COVID

作者:admin 2020-11-30

Chinese consumers, markets, importers wary of imported food amid surge in COVID

Photo: Yang Hui/GT

With growing cases of novel coronavirus detected on
frozen food imported from overseas, Chinese food markets have been scrutinizing every imported product, and to reduce risks, they have chosen to reduce amounts of imported food and shift their business to non-frozen food. Meanwhile, some Chinese consumers are avoiding imported foods and turning to domestically made food instead.

Over the last few days, Global Times reporters visited some key seafood markets, warehouses and supermarkets in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province, Shanghai and Beijing, and discovered that the discovery of coronavirus on imported food has shifted how the Chinese market is run, regulated and managed, and how the shopping habits of some Chinese consumers have changed as a result. 

Over several days of interviews, Global Times reporters felt there was a "fear" of frozen cold-chain food among residents. Many admitted that they won't eat imported cold food any more, and in a bid to drive domestic consumption of imported food, many markets are trying to tempt consumers with coupons and huge discounts. 

Lingering fears

In a Hema Fresh supermarket in Wuhan, Global Times reporters saw a small container of imported fresh food surrounded by a blue isolation strip on Tuesday. Disinfectant solution and gloves were placed on a small table nearby for customers. Every few meters on the container, there was a label showing that the goods had been "monitored and guaranteed", nucleic acid tested and operated under the SSOP hygiene standard. 

There are also large discounts on imported cold-chain food. For example, frozen red-fish fillet from the North Atlantic is being offered as "buy two get one free," while the price of halibut fillets from Iceland dropped by a quarter per bag (200 grams). Global Times reporters observed that even with those discounts, over a 30-minute period, no more than five people came to select the products. 

One anonymous health official said they had received several phone calls from local residents in Wuhan asking what to do with the imported frozen meat in their refrigerators that they were afraid to open, and asked if the government could take them away.

In Shanghai, the Global Times reporter stayed over one hour near the frozen products area of a wholesale store of Metro China, and noticed that there were a few customers purchasing the frozen imported goods on Wednesday afternoon.

An eye-catching slogan was seen at the entrance of the wholesale market: "We control the storage and sales temperature from the source through the entire cold chain; we adopt strict daily cleaning and disinfection."

However, an employee who declined to give her name said that all the imported frozen goods sold at the market had been tested for coronavirus. "Last week, the city market watchdog also went to the store to carry out checks," she noted.

Despite the strict screening measures, some residents still have concerns over the quality of imported frozen foods. A local lady in her 50s surnamed Pu said she bought 400 yuan of Australian imported beef several days ago from the market, but she wanted to return it due to concerns over new cases reported in recent days in Shanghai.

Other customers had no hesitation in selecting the imported beef. 

The frozen beef sold in the wholesale market is mainly imported from Australia. In order to raise sales, the store offered favorable new policies for its members. For instance, Australian grain-fed 100-day beef was sold at 218 yuan per kilogram during the promotion period, down 20 yuan from the original price.

In the US chain supermarket Costco, the Global Times found quite a few imported cold-chain foods had discounts, including some with the prices reduced by about 15 percent, especially those imported from the US. A salesperson at a steak counter told the Global Times on November 25 that sales of beef from the US have been affected by the recent coronavirus epidemic outbreaks.

A customer surnamed He decided to return imported beef that she had just put into her trolley into the fridge, opting instead for domestically produced beef after learning about the risks of imported food.

Another customer who spoke to the Global Times expressed concerns over whether domestic cold-chain foods could be contaminated by imported products. Others still opted for imported products, but only after some hesitation. 

'Not daring to take risks'

After it was found that the virus on infected imported food was transmitted to people who had been in close contact with it, the Global Times found that markets and food sellers were taking measures to reduce the risks.

In Baishazhou market, the largest agricultural and sideline product market in Wuhan, strict anti-epidemic measures were still being implemented, requiring visitors, logistics workers and store owners to register their health information, take their body temperatures and wear masks at all times. 

The owner of a wholesaler that sells frozen beef and mutton said that he has not imported any more products since Wuhan's lockdown on January 23 and that he still has some stock imported from New Zealand and Australia before the outbreak.

"People in Wuhan who lived through those difficult days know that our current life is hard won. The country has invested so much and the local residents have paid a big price. We don't dare to take risks to continue importing cold chain products for the sake of the immediate interests," the owner surnamed Zhang told the Global Times.

According to the Wuhan Health Commission, the city requires seafood and frozen meat imported after late June to have "two certificates and one report" (customs clearance certificate, quarantine certificate and novel coronavirus nucleic acid test report). 

A staff member from the publicity department of Hema Fresh in Wuhan told the Global Times on Wednesday that the products on sale are those in stock which had passed the nucleic acid test. The next batch of imports is still on the way. 

According to special requirements put forward by the local government, the imported goods cannot be stored in the industrial park as they had been before, and cold chain products have to be separated from fresh products. This means that the frozen products should be stored in a special frozen warehouse, the staff said. 

For the next batch of cold chain goods expected to come at the beginning of December, Hema Fresh has already found a warehouse, but is considering whether to purchase the goods, as the city's municipal supervision authority requires the store to bear the costs of carrying out the nucleic acid tests. "It costs 50 yuan to test one box, which is a burden for the store," the staff said.

When the Global Times visited a chain store of Hema Supermarket based in Beijing's Chaoyang district on Wednesday and Thursday, the reporter was told that since September, Hema stores have reduced the amount of imported seafood. Now, all imported seafood, whether frozen or not, has to provide nucleic acid test reports before unloading. Customers can check the nucleic acid test report on the Hema app through the released QR code.  

Carrefour supermarket stores adopted similar measures to reduce risks by cutting their imports. The Global Times found that there are only a few hairy crabs and freshwater fish left in the fresh seafood area of the supermarket, with no other fresh seafood products on sale. 

As a routine preventive measure, a staff member from Carrefour near Beijing's Ciyunsi told the reporter that anyone who touches the freezers now has to wear gloves, and that cleaning staff also have to follow procedures to disinfect and protect the freezers.

In the wake of Beijing's Xinfadi market outbreak and cases related to imported food being found to be infected, the Global Times found seafood markets in Beijing are now extremely wary about imported frozen products. 

At the front gates of Jingshen Seafood Market and Dayang Road Seafood Wholesale Market in the capital, the Global Times reporter saw several citizens looking to purchase seafood being turned away, as these markets are now only open to wholesalers. Frozen food cannot be found in the market, and only live seafood is currently available.

Seafood merchants can only deliver the seafood ordered by customers to the front gate or by express delivery, a merchant who sells crab, shrimp, abalone and other "live seafood" in the market told the Global Times.

The same scene was seen in Beijing's Dayang Road Seafood Wholesale Market, where frozen and imported seafood halls have been closed. The exhibition hall that was used to sell live seafood has also been closed for five months, with only a few stalls outside the market selling crab, shrimp and shellfish. 

Restaurants around the market were all sealed off with tape. According to the security guards at the site, after the outbreak in Beijing's Xinfadi market, many restaurants had to close their doors.

'Cold' imports industry

Frozen imports via cold-chain logistics are facing serious challenges, as a growing number of places in China have reported coronavirus contamination of imports recently.

Frozen product importers and forwarders have also felt the pinch from the recent mounting pressures on their business. Some are struggling to survive this special period while others have temporarily embraced a new business approach.

In the Tianjin International Trade and Shipping Services Center in Binhai, where many people are handling import or export application papers for local customs, Zhang, a customs declaration specialist, has just completed his work.

Zhang told the Global Times on Wednesday that compared with the import form for non-frozen goods, he has to fill in more details on his client's frozen imports, which means more potential risks.

"There is now very strict management for frozen imports in Tianjin. Each product's destination, which cold storehouse it is heading to, all the information must be very clear. Despite the additional time and effort, I understand it is quite necessary at this time," Zhang said.

"But we do have higher costs now because they are cold chain containers. Each cold chain container costs around 1,000 yuan ($152.3) to 2,000 yuan per day, we have more than 100 containers on hold, which means we lose more than 100,000 yuan per day, which is a big number for us," he noted.

Some clients have asked for their products to be transferred to Shanghai or Qingdao, where the process takes less time, according to Zhang, adding that customs might need more time to adapt to the changes after Tianjin became the latest place to be hit by the virus on frozen imports.

The fleet manager of Tianjin Jintaiheng Logistics Co, surnamed Fan, told the Global Times on Wednesday that his company had switched to non-frozen imports just one month ago, temporarily suspending frozen imports like crab and meat from Europe, Japan and South Korea.

"At the moment, we still have several cold chain containers lying idle, waiting to be inspected," Fan said, adding that during the special period, some clients would rather abandon frozen imports rather than pay the extra costs.

"It is now hard to predict what will happen, and we don't know when the epidemic can truly stop spreading," he noted.

Zhang is more optimistic, believing the impact on frozen imports and cold chain firms will eventually end. "Frozen food imports cannot be banned entirely, because China needs a large amount of imports to fill the gaps in domestic supply. So, all we can do is to reduce our losses as much as we can and try to survive the blizzard," he noted.

The import business related to non-frozen products has not been affected by the virus, the Global Times learnt from several forwarders at the Tianjin International Trade and Shipping Services Center, even though epidemiologists have recently warned of potential risks brought by international containers shipped to China as winter arrives.

Reporting by Zhang Hongpei in Tianjin; Cao Siqi, Zhao Yusha, Fan Lingzhi and Li Jieyi in Wuhan; Yu Xi, Yang Hui, Du Qiongfang and Xie Jun in Shanghai; Chen Qingqing, Liu Caiyu and Xu Yelu in Beijing

  • Imported cold chain logistics face tighter inspections in China following fresh COVID-19 outbreak linked to frozen food contamination
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