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China has suspended poultry imports from another Arkansas processing plant, citing workers with covid-19 infections as the reason.

The OK Foods chicken plant in Fort Smith became ineligible to ship products to China on Sunday, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It is the second U.S. meat or poultry plant to be blocked by China since the pandemic hit. China in June suspended imports from a Tyson Foods chicken plant in Springdale.

Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, said China is doing this in response to reported viral outbreaks at the plants.

"We do not think these suspensions are justified," he said. "It makes no sense to us" because research shows the virus that causes covid-19 cannot be transmitted through poultry.

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The Chinese customs authority notified the USDA of the suspension on Sunday, Sumner said.

"The good news is any product they shipped by that date will be allowed entry," he said.

China is the world's largest meat importer and has purchased more than $447 million in U.S.-raised poultry since the start of the year, according to USDA trade data. That's more than double what the country bought in all of 2019 as it meets increased demand created by the African swine fever. The fever has decimated China's pork industry.

OK Foods, which is owned by Bachoco, did not immediately return messages for comment.

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 234 total covid-19 cases among workers at the Fort Smith plant since early Spring. Currently, there are fewer than five active cases at the facility, according to outbreak reports on the department's website.The same goes for the Tyson Berry Street plant in Springdale.

Along with the two Arkansas locations, the export council said, China has blocked imports from 42 international meat and poultry plants.

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Sumner didn't expect the suspensions to be lifted anytime soon.

"We've been unable to find out what procedure to follow to have the suspension lifted," he said. "Our government has requested this information, but as of now there has been no response."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "there is no evidence" that the coronavirus can spread to people through food. Another study shows otherwise.

Kristen Gibson, a microbiologist with the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said one study in peer pre-review supported the possibility that the virus could survive on food, but how "likely it is to elicit a response once ingested is very low."

There also has been research into how well the virus spreads on packaging, but the likelihood of it surviving in transit is next to none, Gibson said.

"If it was foodborne, we would see a lot more cases," Gibson said. "There's no evidence that it's really a concern."


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