China wants international shippers of meat and soybeans to sign a document attesting their cargoes meet safety standards to ensure they aren't contaminated with the novel coronavirus. That's a step many American exporters have so far been reluctant to take for fear of liability, with Tyson Foods Inc. being the first to confirm that it has signed the certificate.
The new demands from China could end up being an impediment to shipments, further delaying the $36.5 billion in farm purchases the Asian nation pledged under the phase-one trade deal.
The move comes even as the world's major public health authorities say the virus isn't foodborne, raising questions over why China is taking the action. It also could act as a nontariff trade barrier, a tactic the Asian country has applied in the past with everything from American corn cargoes to Canadian canola.
China's request isn't a move aimed at imposing trade restrictions, according to people familiar with the matter. The demand doesn't target specific countries as it's for all exporters, and aims to ease Chinese consumer concerns over the safety of imported food.
"I believe this is simply a buyer seeking leverage," said Chris Robinson, managing director of agriculture and commodities at TJM Institutional Services in Chicago. "They were notorious in the past for canceling shipments for various 'infractions,'" he said referring to China.
On Sunday, China suspended poultry imports from a Tyson Foods plant in Springdale where hundreds of employees tested positive for covid-19, stoking concerns over the broader implications for U.S. and global meat exports. If shippers don't sign the new affidavits, they could be subject to more bans.
This comes just after China signaled last week that it was getting ready to accelerate purchases of American farm goods to comply with the trade deal after recent talks with U.S. officials in Hawaii.
China's latest actions could just be the country "stirring the pot" ahead of the U.S. presidential elections in November, Robinson said.
Chinese buyers are asking soybean and meat shippers to comply with safety regulations "to ensure that food imported into China is not contaminated with the covid-19 virus," according to the declaration seen by Bloomberg.
Late Tuesday, Tyson confirmed that it signed the statement declaring it is complying with Chinese laws and international food-safety standards.
"We are very confident in the safety of our products and have put measures in place that are in full compliance with all applicable requirements, and have signed the certification on that basis," Tyson said.