China halts European salmon imports over suspected link to virus outbreak

OSLO/LONDON (Reuters) - China has halted imports from European salmon suppliers amid fears they might be linked to a coronavirus outbreak at a Beijing market, although experts say the fish itself is unlikely to carry the disease.

FILE PHOTO: Cylinders incubate tiny salmon in the hatchery at the Cargill research centre in Dirdal, Norway, August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

State-run newspapers reported the virus was discovered on chopping boards used for imported salmon at Beijing’s Xinfadi market, the source of a cluster of infections that has sparked fears of a second wave of the pandemic in China.

The reports prompted major supermarkets in Beijing to remove salmon from their shelves.

“We can’t send any salmon to China now, the market is closed,” Regin Jacobsen, CEO of Oslo-listed salmon supplier Bakkafrost, told Reuters.

“We have stopped all sales to China and are waiting for the situation to be clarified,” said Stein Martinsen, head of sales and marketing at Norway Royal Salmon.

Genetic traces of the virus from the Beijing market outbreak suggested it could have come from Europe.

Keith Neal, an emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at Britain’s University of Nottingham, said any link to salmon was likely the result of cross contamination.

“Markets can be crowded places, so like in Wuhan, (they) help fuel spread,” he said, referring to the Chinese city where the virus originated.

Neal said finding a link to Europe was not surprising, given the global spread of the virus.

“China gave the world this virus and it was always very likely to give it back to them. Finding a strain prevalent in Europe probably reflects people returning to China after travelling to Europe,” he said.

Norway’s Food Safety Authority said there was no evidence fish could be infected.

Shares in Norway Royal Salmon, Faroe Islands-based Bakkafrost BAKKA.OL and Norway's Mowi MOWI.OL and Salmar SALM.OL were down 3-5% at 1225 GMT.

Both Bakkafrost and Norway Royal Salmon said employees had been tested for the virus, and none had tested positive.

China accounts for about 5% of global salmon demand, according to Bakkafrost.

Order cancellations were limited to China and had not affected other markets, said the Norwegian Seafood Council, a marketing firm.

Additional reporting by Victoria Klesty, writing by Terje Solsvik; editing by Jason Neely and Mark Potter