OMAHA, Neb. — China's decision to ban imports from a single Tyson Foods poultry plant where there was a coronavirus outbreak has raised concerns about the implications on the U.S. meat industry if the action is expanded to other plants.
Chinese customs officials didn't hint about expanding the ban in a short statement it issued about suspending imports from the plant in Springdale, Arkansas. The country imposed a similar ban last week on pork imports from a German plant where a number of workers tested positive for COVID-19, but it hasn't taken action against other U.S. beef, pork and poultry plants that have seen outbreaks among workers.
Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, said he hopes the move won't hurt the overall relationship with China, which had been improving after a new trade deal was signed early this year.
"Hopefully it's not going to mean anything," Sumner said. "If it remains at just one plant, it will not have any meaningful impact, but we don't know what's going to happen."
A U.S. Agriculture Department spokesman said Monday that there is no evidence of the virus being transmitted by food or food packaging.
"This action by the Chinese is completely unjustified," National Chicken Council spokesman Tom Super said. Sumner said the time it takes for meat produced in the United States to reach China would make it especially difficult for any virus to survive.
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"It's not transmissible in meat," he said. "Plus, that product is frozen and spends 30 days in a container en route to China. So there is zero possibility of a live virus from the US showing up in frozen poultry as it has been shipped by ocean carrier halfway around the world."
Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company remains confident that its products are safe, and it hopes the issue can be resolved in trade talks between the two countries.
Last week, Tyson announced the results of coronavirus testing at its facilities in Benton and Washington counties in Arkansas. It said that 481 of the 3,748 workers it tested were positive for COVID-19, and most of those workers didn't show any symptoms of the illness.
There have been other COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants around the United States, including in South Dakota, Iowa, North Carolina, Nebraska, and Iowa.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called China's move "very troubling" since there's been no evidence of the virus being transmitted from food, and questioned why the facility was singled out.
"I don't know whether China is playing politics or just making bad judgments, but that's not good or helpful at all in our relationship," Hutchinson said.
Jeff Moon, who is a former assistant U.S. trade representative for China and now a trade consultant, said the action could be a political move to remind the Trump administration how dependent America is on the Chinese market for exports, but it's hard to tell for certain what is behind the ban.
"There is a legitimate interest in promoting food safety, but it also serves a much broader political purpose. China can choose to implement this ban for as long as it wants to or if it thinks it is useful and appropriate, it can lift it tomorrow. American companies frequently face this kind of limbo when dealing with the Chinese market," Moon said.
International trade was helped this year by China's promise to buy $40 billion in U.S. agricultural products per year under a trade pact signed in January although there have been some recent questions about whether China will fulfill that pledge. China became the fourth-largest market for American poultry in the first quarter after it lifted a five-year ban on those products.
Meat exports grew significantly throughout the first three months of the year despite the fact that dozens of U.S. meatpacking plants closed temporarily after outbreaks of the coronavirus among their workers. Chicken exports grew by 8% in the first quarter. And the U.S. Meat Export Federation trade group said pork exports jumped 40% and beef exports grew 9% during the first three months of the year.
Anything that jeopardizes the Chinese market significantly would have a negative impact on meatpacking profits and livestock prices, agricultural economist Glynn Tonsor said.
"If it's just one facility, then the industrywide price effects are very small. But if it became companywide or multiple plant or multiple species, then that starts hitting a much bigger portion of our production," said Tonsor, who is based at Kansas State University.