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New rules wreak havoc in China

Lack of clarity and expeditious application deadline: New food import laws are putting pressure on foreign companies attracted by China’s appetite.



New food import laws are wreaking havoc.


© AFP
New food import laws are wreaking havoc.

China is the largest food importer in the world: the country bought food and drinks from abroad for 108 billion dollars (98.5 billion francs) last year. And the figure continues to grow: its food imports have jumped nearly 30% year-on-year in the first three quarters of 2021.

But last spring, Beijing published two new decrees to improve product traceability, in a country long shaken by health scandals. As of January 1, 2022, all producers of food exported to China will need to be registered with customs and obtain an identification number.

At the international level, only products “at high risk” from a health point of view (meat, dairy or seafood, etc.) are generally subject to special measures. The new legislation hardens them and extends the field to a multitude of products which were not concerned until then: honey, olive oil, coffee powder, chocolate bars, alcoholic drinks… This is a Chinese specificity. unparalleled in the world.

“Lack of clarity”

Problem: the application details were published late and the registration site was only put online last month, catching foreign producers by surprise. The procedure “lack of clarity”, annoyed several of them under cover of anonymity.

The registration site, which is in an evolving version, does not also offer all the information in English. Companies were able to register. But the process is complex and subject to approval. A number failed. Others received the wrong country code, a diplomatic source in Beijing noted.

To give companies time to adapt, several countries and the European Union have pleaded with Beijing for a postponement of the measure. In vain. A few days before the entry into force of the new legislation, “many companies are still waiting to obtain their authorization,” regrets the EU Chamber of Commerce in Beijing.

“Import curtain”

“It is a subject of great concern”, indicates in Paris the Federation of wine and spirits exporters (FEVS). France alone has more companies affected by the new legislation than the rest of the European countries, particularly in the wine sector.

On Christmas Eve, Customs finally resolved to approve “high-risk” products from several countries, according to the diplomatic source. But on January 1, “the import curtain will fall,” warns Alban Renaud, lawyer in China for the Adaltys law firm.

Export barriers?

In the name of the fight against Covid-19, Beijing is imposing drastic control measures on its borders on imported foodstuffs (screening tests on food and packaging, systematic disinfection). These measures, considered “disproportionate” by some professionals, lead to delays and additional costs.

Food import problems are to be expected from February, the diplomatic source suspects. Since the discovery last year of traces of the virus on a cutting board of imported salmon in a Beijing market, China has been particularly finicky with the cold chain.

The frozen food hypothesis at the origin of the Covid-19 epidemic in China had, however, been challenged by the WHO. “Products that do not meet (health) standards will be rejected,” insisted on Wednesday an official of the administration who oversees the food industry. What to see, for some observers, “new barriers to exports” under the guise of the fight against the epidemic.

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