‘Totally catastrophic’: China’s coronavirus crisis sees global F&B authorities react with varying degrees of caution

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

The lobster industry in Oceania has been one of those most heavily affected by fears from the coronavirus outbreak. ©Getty Images
The lobster industry in Oceania has been one of those most heavily affected by fears from the coronavirus outbreak. ©Getty Images

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The recent coronavirus outbreak originating from animals in China has seen food and beverage authorities and industries worldwide taking steps to prevent spreading or ‘importing’ the virus into their countries – some more aggressively than others.

The coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, was first identified in Wuhan, China where most of the victims so far have been located. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak to be a global health emergency last month.

In response to the crisis, authorities in several countries have acted to ban the import of food items from China. One of these was Indonesia, which started with the ban of live animal imports from the country and is set to release a list of other banned food items soon.

“We will obviously stop live animals imports from China and are still considering banning other products,” ​Trade Minister Agus Suparmanto said in a media briefing after a government meeting about the virus.

“We are still in the preparatory stage, laying out details so we don’t target wrongly. [For horticultural products], we are not sure yet, it’s not 100%, but if those do not carry the virus, we will let them in.

“[Indonesia] will only stop imports of products that could potentially spread the coronavirus.”

He also told Daily Express​ that exports ‘would not be affected’​. Indonesia is China’s biggest trade partner globally.

India has so far not announced any ban on Chinese imports, but local traders have voluntarily stopped food product imports from the country for fears of bringing in the virus.

“People have kept their shipments of [products like] sauces, noodles, etc. on hold – [They do not want] to currently import anything from China,”​ Forum of Indian Food Importers (FIFI) Founder-Director Amit Lohani told livemint​.

“There would be a long-term ripple effect [on businesses]. It is very difficult to contemplate right now [the extent of the] impact.”

A similar situation has been seen in Russia, when retailer Magnit issued a statement saying it would also be stopping its imports of fruits and vegetables from China, citing both the virus and logistical difficulties as reasons. Russia as a country has not implemented a ban per se, but has closed the 4,000km land border between itself and China.

In the Middle East, Jordan reacted to the crisis more aggressively by completely banning all animal and vegetable products from China as of February 2.

“Import licenses from China have been suspended until further notice,”​ Jordanian Agriculture Ministry Director of Licensing Karim Al-Hussami said in a media statement.

“[This will be reviewed] in the coming period [when things stabilise].”

The calm in the storm

That said, some authorities have opted for a less absolute course of action on Chinese food imports.

An example here is Malaysia, which has said that its import and export activities with China would continue as per normal.

“Among the items we import (from China) are chicken cuts, some selected fruits and vegetables but all are [free from the coronavirus],” ​Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Seri Salahuddin Ayub said at an agricultural event.

“This virus is transmitted from person to person [and not inanimate objects] so let us not be brutal on import restrictions, unless there is a new study and we will take appropriate action.”

The Philippines has not issued any formal bans either despite having seen one death in the country as a result of the virus.

According to the country’s previous Health Undersecretary Dr Susan Mercado, because coronaviruses are parasitic, they need higher forms of life as well as moisture to survive, hence imported Chinese goods pose a ‘very low risk’ ​of spreading it.

The Dubai Customs Authority also told Al Arabiya​ that it saw ‘no problem’​ in terms of importing Chinese products.

Meat and seafood casualties

The coronavirus is believed to have originated from an animal source, and it should thus come as no surprise that meat and seafood trade with China has been one of the most heavily affected sectors within the F&B industry so far.

China was Australia’s largest beef export market in 2019 at over 24% of total exports or 300,000 tonnes of beef, and fears are rife in the industry that the outbreak will lead to a severe drop in demand and corresponding exports.

According to BeefCentral,​ the overall demand for meat had ‘dramatically changed’​, especially for foodservice, as Chinese consumers were going out much less than usual.

The impact on seafood would be even more dramatic, as China was also Australia’s biggest export destination for live rock lobsters in 2019 and took up an even larger percentage of that market at over 90%.

“Most live seafood exporters have been impacted with demand more or less stopping with the Chinese people being told to stay indoors and to avoid crowds. [There's] been a big impact,"​ said Geraldton Fishermen's Co-operative CEO Matthew Rutter to Undercurrent​.

The effect of the virus outbreak on the Australian lobster industry have been particularly harsh as peak harvest and sales season was actually about to commence around the same time as the news about the outbreak broke.

“[It was] totally catastrophic for [the industry],” ​Victorian Rock Lobster Association President Markus Nolle said.

“All orders have been cancelled. There is no demand. Word out of China is that it will take six to eight weeks before things get moving again, but it is probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

As of time of publishing, 2019-nCoV has infected 24,553 people and killed 492.

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