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

By GT staff reporters Source: Global Times Published: 2020/11/29 18:38:40 Last Updated: 2020/11/29 20:58:13

Photo: Li Hao/GT

Since June, at least 16 provincial-level regions in China have detected coronavirus on imported cold chain food or their packaging, prompting many cities across the country to implement strict quarantine measures on imported cold chain food to prevent a renewed COVID-19 outbreak.  

In the Binhai New Area, a sub-provincial district that combines port, industrial and free trade zones in North China's Tianjin Municipality, the latest place hit by the virus, frozen imports via cold chain and their containers have been subject to stricter inspections, disinfection and procedures to guarantee their safety before entering the market.

According to Tianjin health officials, two confirmed cases earlier this month were traced back to imported pig heads from North America. The two infected workers are both involved in the cold storehouse of Tianjin Hailian Frozen Food Co, located in the Binhai New Area.

An employee of the company told the Global Times that its cold storehouse has been shut.

Outside the outdoor base of Tedahang Cold Chain Logistics, one of the major cold chain companies in Tianjin, the Global Times found several frozen product containers piled up. Different from ordinary containers, there is a motor, a fan and small digital screen on the surface of the cold chain container.

You Jin, manager of customs declaration at Tianjin Yongcheng Shijia International Forwarders Co, told the Global Times that via the digital screen, the temperature and tracking of the container can be read. "And of course, its costs are much higher," You said.

A food seller who has provided hot meals to truck drivers along the road outside Tedahang for years told the Global Times that those cold chain containers have been placed there for several days. "I have seen no trucks coming in to or out of the base for nearly a week," he said.

As frozen imports through cold chain logistics have raised concerns following the flare-up of detected contamination, Chinese customs have also tightened their screening.

"As customs declaration staff, it is our job to assist customs officials to check imports at customs inspection sites, but now given the potential risks during this special period, we are not allowed to enter, which means customs' workload has increased a lot, let alone the surging disinfection work," You said.

"Now at inspection sites, only customs staff and each site's own staff are allowed in," he added.

Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Cargo trucks suspended 

At the cargo area of Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, the Global Times reporter who recently paid a visit to the area noticed that all the cargo business was running normally, while working staff were wearing protective suits and busy directing cargo transportation.

On November 23, a FedEx (China) employee working at Pudong International Airport tested positive for coronavirus among the 17,719 people working at the airport who had been tested since November 22 night. At least three UPS employees working at the airport have been reported coronavirus positive since November 20.

At the UPS cargo area at the airport, the Global Times reporter stayed for around half an hour on Tuesday and noticed that none of the cargo trucks were operating. Meanwhile, at the FedEx cargo area, employees were working as usual, but all outsiders had to hand in nucleic test negative certification before entering the area. 

At the Jiangyang aquatic wholesale market, one of the largest wholesale markets in Shanghai, the Global Times reporter saw that everyone entering the market had to show their health code and wear face masks, while merchants transporting their goods into the market had to present the proper certification.

At 5pm of a particular day last week, a number of merchants lined up in a long queue at the inspection station outside the market to get their certificates checked, which included a certificate of inspection and quarantine of imported goods, a certificate of nucleic acid testing of the goods, and the company's business license. 

"Without the certification, the goods can't be sent into the market," a merchant surnamed Zhou, who sold imported beef from Spain and seafood from Brazil at the market, told the Global Times, noting that their business has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although it was a little cold in the evening, sellers in the market were all working, with some shoving ice, and some clearing their goods.  "Compared with the period before the epidemic, business is much worse," a merchant selling imported beef surnamed Lu said, but refused to disclose how much he had lost due to the epidemic.

All the merchants reached by the Global Times claimed that their goods on sale were qualified as they had abided by strict inspection rules.

In the Shanghai  Oriental  International  Fisheries  Market, one of Shanghai's biggest aquatic product wholesale markets with over 1,000 stores and three refrigeration storage facilities, the Global Times learned from the market administration department that trucks had to be disinfected before entering the premises.  Imported goods with certificates of inspection and quarantine and negative nucleic acid testing results issued by the Customs are allowed to enter the market. 

A store owner at the market told the Global Times that sales of their frozen products have not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The imported frozen seafood they were selling was ordered from abroad after Chinese New Year in February. The goods arrived at the market 40 to 50 days after they placed the orders and the seafood has been on sale since their arrival. 

Another store owner, however, said that their frozen seafood stored in the cold storage was waiting for disinfection before it could hit the market. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have barely restocked frozen seafood this year. 

"To cope with potential risks, seafood manufacturers can only make sure that the sealing and packaging work is done carefully when the food is sent out of the factories," said Eason Li, China general manager at Norwegian seafood processor Hofseth International AS.

"Manufacturers normally entrust third-party logistics companies to ship the products by air or by sea, and they will manage food contamination risks during the shipping process. We only deal with the products' quality checks and processing before they are shipped out of the factories," Li told the Global Times.

Li cited the example of seafood processed at Hofseth. "Our products are put in three layers of packaging, then sealed in vacuum bags, outer packaging bags and outer containers. We are sure that when customers get our products, the sealed vacuum bag is not exposed to any environment that can be contaminated," he noted.

Photo: Cao Siqi/GT

Close-up of 'red zone'

Wuhan, capital city of Central China's Hubei Province, where the first COVID-19 cases were reported in the country, also launched an epidemiological investigation in November 18 after the city detected coronavirus on a package of frozen beef from Brazil which had been imported through a port in Tianjin. In the latest inspections, the city discovered the coronavirus on two other packages of beef imported from Brazil and on one package of fish imported from Vietnam on Friday.

Global Times reporters recently visited Wuhan to take a closer look at the strict anti-epidemic measures that have been implemented in the quarantine "red zone." 

The cold food storage warehouse where frozen beef from Brazil tested positive for coronavirus on November 12 was tightly cordoned off when reporters visited on Thursday. Dozens of inspectors dressed in full protective suits were seen unloading cold-chain products inside the barriers.

The boxes filled with imported frozen products were piled up to the inspectors' shoulders. A red banner saying: "Strengthen red line mentality, promote safe production" is draped across the front of the cold storage building. The factory also separated platforms for uploading imported and domestic goods, in line with Wuhan's current "red zone" management rules. 

An employee from the cold storage told the Global Times that the factory is used for storing imported cold-chain products from all over the world, including Brazil, New Zealand and Australia. When the Global Times reporter visited the factory, the inspector was uploading a box with brand logo GJ on it, which is thought to be frozen meat from Australia. 

The employees said that it costs 2.5 yuan ($0.37) to 2.8 yuan per ton every day to store. The 2.67-hectare storage can hold over 10,000 tons of products.

Ever since the beef from Brazil tested positive for coronavirus, the factory has been disinfecting cold-chain products, and the number of items subject to sample testing has soared. "Those inspectors work at least 10 hours per day," said the employee, noting that they will disinfect the packaging of every box and take out all their products to examine them. 

The employee said that the government shoulders the costs for examination, and the factory pays for forklifts and dockers, and also has to bear the losses of cold-chain storage left unused. This will cost the factory up to 80,000 yuan per day.

"But those are not the problems we should be worrying about now. The government spends much more than us. As a state-owned company, it is our indispensable responsibility to safeguard food safety for the public," he said.  

Photo: Li Hao/GT

Only live seafood available

Beijing Capital Agribusiness Group (CAG) announced on November 22 that Jingshen Seafood Market, a wholesale seafood market attached to CAG,  started to implement the epidemic prevention rules strictly in accordance with plans to resume businesses and markets. 

Due to the outbreak in Beijing's Xinfadi market, Jingshen Seafood Market was reopened until mid-September but cancelled individual purchases after the reopening, and only member merchants or wholesalers who registered and applied are allowed to enter the market to pick up goods they have ordered. 

The freezers at the Jingshen seafood market have been closed since the first case was confirmed in June, the market's security personnel told the Global Times. The freezer has been emptied and the gate of the facility has been removed. Only live seafood is currently available, the Global Times reporter noticed. 

According to the staff at the market office, the main anti-epidemic measures currently include separating wet and dry sections, disinfecting when entering or leaving the market, always wearing masks, and ensuring that all businesses and staff report their health condition and body temperature on the "Jingshen E-home" app one day in advance of entering the market.

At Beijing's Dayang Road Seafood Wholesale Market, individuals are not allowed to enter the market, and only trucks can enter. All trucks and merchants coming from other places need to conduct nucleic acid testing at the entrance of the market. In addition, cars need to be disinfected when they enter and leave the market. At present, the market mainly sells domestic meat products.

In the Beijing Southwest Jiaoroulei Aquatic Products Market, which is owned by Beijing Capital Agribusiness Group and the main wholesale market of frozen food in Beijing, the Global Times reporter found that there are no retail stalls or live seafood stalls.

Cold chain logistics is running as usual every day. According to the merchant, cold chain trucks are now required to be disinfected every day. After arriving at the destination, the driver has to present nucleic acid test results. 

The porters said that many cold chain trucks arrive and leave every day, and nucleic acid tests have to be done on all the imported frozen food, but the number is not as high as five months ago.

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

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