China food import rule draws flak
BEIJING — The top U.N. food-standards official will visit Beijing next month in a last-ditch attempt to persuade China to scale back a plan requiring intensive inspections of food imports. The plan threatens to disrupt billions of dollars in commerce, trade officials in Washington and Europe say.
China’s plan would complicate trade and increase tension with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has promised to raise tariffs on imports from China, analysts said.
Under the new rule, set to take effect as early as October, each consignment of food — including low-risk items such as chocolate and wine — would require a certificate from a foreign inspector confirming it meets Chinese quality standards. Other countries require such inspections only for meat, dairy and other perishable items.
Many suppliers see China as a growing market for American fruit juice and snack foods, French wine, German chocolate, Italian pasta and Australian orange juice. They complain China already uses safety rules in ways that hamper access for beef and other goods in violation of its market-opening commitments.
“It could bring down food imports quite dramatically,” said the German ambassador to China, Michael Clauss. “It often seems it is more about protecting Chinese producers than about food safety.”
In the past, China has banned all poultry imports from the U.S. after regional outbreaks of pathogenic avian influenza. China has also temporarily banned all U.S. beef imports over concerns about the spread of mad cow disease. Trade officials have been working for years to develop a protocol for the export of Arkansas rice to China, the biggest producer and importer of rice.
The new Chinese rule would add “unnecessary regulatory complexity” at a time when China has promised to reduce regulation, Jake Parker, vice president of China operations for the U.S.-China Business Council, said in an email.
Chinese regulators say closer scrutiny is needed as food imports increase. They say they are willing to consider suggestions about alternatives, but foreign officials say they have yet to make any changes.
China contends the inspections requirement is supported by the Codex Alimentarius, the “Food Code” of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The Codex sets quality standards, but other nations say it recommends certificates only for risky products.
The president of the Codex council, Awilo Ochieng Pernet, a Swiss lawyer, will attend an April 6 seminar with Chinese officials in Beijing to explain its standards, according to that person, who asked not to be identified further. Participants plan to propose alternatives such as giving China access to electronic records to track sources of shipments.
Ambassadors from the United States and another government expressed concern in a letter in January to Wang Yang, a deputy premier who oversees farming and commerce.
Officials of the United States, the EU, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Chile and other governments sent a similar letter to the Chinese product quality agency, the General Administration for Quality Inspection, Supervision and Quarantine.
EU officials believe that requiring health certificates for all products “is not scientifically justified,” the EU mission in Beijing said in a statement.
The rules would be a burden on foreign suppliers and “a waste of the precious control resources” that should focus on risky products, it said.
The rules follow an avalanche of scandals over Chinese suppliers caught selling tainted milk and other shoddy or counterfeit food products.