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Comment: Food safety nationalism

China appears to be using the pandemic as a tool to make its people afraid of food imports

Many are talking about vaccine nationalism these days, with concerns that some nations are involved in a race to access as many vaccines as possible.

Disappointing of course, but highly predictable. Vaccines are seen by the entire western world as our collective portal towards some sort of normalcy. The World Health Organization has rightly registered its concerns about vaccine hoarding.

Meanwhile, the same world agency has sent a team to look at the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. The first visits were completed this week at a food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where many believe the global pandemic started. Even if the investigation likely won’t generate much evidence regarding the pandemic’s origin, at least not early on, food safety nationalism is and will continue to impact the entire fact-finding discourse.

With the pandemic, while the entire world considers Wuhan to be ground zero, China has adopted a very different narrative. For months now, the Chinese government has released reports of imported food and products contaminated with COVID-19. In the summer last year, Beijing accused Brazil of exporting COVID-19-contaminated products. A sample of frozen chicken wings imported from Brazil tested positive in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. This happened in August, and the announcement was the latest in a series of reports of contaminated imported food products.

Again, in the fall, Beijing urged Chinese companies to halt imports of frozen products from countries that have been hard hit by the pandemic as fears continued to mount over the possibility of transmission through food packaging. According to Chinese authorities, the first local asymptomatic infections in many weeks were detected when a few port workers from the city of Qingdao, responsible for unloading frozen seafood, tested positive for COVID-19.

China has continuously suggested that the country was and is the victim of imported contaminated frozen foods, even though the science on the virus is now more developed than it was 11 months ago, as is its survival capacity. Contamination through food supply chains is highly unlikely. There has not been one known case thus far during the pandemic, outside of China, that is.

China is effectively playing the fear card. Some call it propaganda. Ever since China was hit by the tainted melamine-in-milk scandal, consumers in the country have always been suspicious about the safety of their domestic food. At the time, the country was hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the government was hesitant to disclose anything, not wanting the distraction. In 2008, the chosen tactic was concealment. Now, with the pandemic, China has clearly chosen risk management nationalism in food safety. China is trying to portray itself as the protector of evil, inside its borders. The pandemic is being weaponized as a menace against the Chinese people.

From some reports, it seems to be working. The focus on discriminating against imported foods has gone retail. Many food retailers in China are now separating imported products from domestic products. Shoppers will see separate sections for imported products, to protect them from the threat of unknowns. China, one of the world’s most active trading nations, is now allowing shoppers to mitigate risks themselves as they buy food at retail.

The pandemic has changed many rules, including how regulators handle perceived risks related to food safety. Make no mistake, China’s propaganda machine is in full force and the WHO-led investigation will be nothing more than a wild goose chase. The outbreak started more than a year ago. Taking key samples and conducting genetic epidemiological studies is going to be close to impossible. Most of the critical evidence would have disappeared by now, deliberately or otherwise.

China allowed the visit to Wuhan for one reason and one reason only. This is not about the virus, or about understanding how it all started. This is about China and its attempt to alter the COVID origin story. The science may not be on China’s side. But the one thing we have learned so far during this pandemic is that the science related to the virus has been, most of the time, politicized. And that is what China is doing.

About the author

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Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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