China's meat importers worry about delays as key port runs COVID-19 tests

BEIJING, June 17 (Reuters) - China’s meat importers fear clearing delays and a hit to demand after one of the country’s major ports started requiring COVID-19 tests for all meat and seafood containers to prevent contamination from the coronavirus that causes the disease.

Tianjin port on the northern coast began testing batches from every single arriving container on Monday, said two importers and an official briefed on the matter.

Tianjin port and customs officials did not respond to calls seeking comments.

China is the world’s top meat importer and many meat exporting nations like the United States and Brazil have seen thousands of cases of coronavirus among meat plant workers.

Authorities usually conduct food safety tests on a random sample of about 10% of frozen meat shipments, said Grace Gao, manager at Dalian-based meat importer Goldrich International.

Now, every container is opened and boxes pulled out for COVID-19 tests, she said.

The move by Tianjin, 110 km (70 miles) from Beijing and its primary port, follows a fresh outbreak of coronavirus cases linked to a wholesale food market.

“Each batch of beef, or all beef produced on the same date, must be tested for the virus,” said a manager surnamed Fu at Haiyunda Trading.

Any meat in cold storage that arrived after March 1 must also be sealed and tested before it can leave the port, Fu said.

Gao, who has shipments arriving this week in Guangzhou, Tianjin and Shanghai, is worried the tests will cause a backlog at ports, particularly with the large volume of pork arriving in China recently.

The United States Meat Export Federation said so far it had seen minimal disruption to U.S. shipments.

Two customs brokers in Shanghai said on Tuesday the city’s port, which also handles large food import volumes, had not implemented new tests.

Importers fear other ports may follow Tianjin, though.

Any positive test would destroy consumer demand, Gao said. (Reporting by Dominique Patton, Hallie Gu, Muyu Xu, and Yawen Chen; Additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Tom Hogue)