Food industry experts are pushing back after China halted all Canadian meat imports, saying there is no widespread problem when it comes to counterfeit veterinary-health certificates in Canada and that China should investigate its own supply chains.
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa said Tuesday its customs inspectors had detected residue from a restricted feed additive “ractopamine” in a batch of Canadian pork products, leading to the suspension of all meat imports.
China claimed it found as many as 188 examples of “counterfeit” veterinary certificates to export pork products and that “urgent preventative measures” were needed.
John Keogh, an internationally-recognized expert on food supply chain transparency, said he has “100 per cent confidence” in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to certify all meat exports.
“Could we have a rogue player? Absolutely. Are there ways to investigate this? Absolutely. But I don’t think we have a widespread problem.”
He said if there is an issue, it’s likely a larger problem once exports land in Asia.
“If I were China, I would probably look in my backyard for the culprits,” said Keogh, founder of the Toronto-based company Shantalla, which advises companies on food safety and integrity. “I am 100 per cent confident in the products and the data coming out of Canada.”
Sylvain Charlebois, a senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, said while there have been instances in the past involving falsified documents, it’s not a rampant problem.
Charlebois said when it comes to the issue of ractopamine, Canada’s use of the additive has given China a way to exert pressure on the Canadian government. The additive, which promotes leaner pigs, is permitted in Canada, but banned in China, Russia and the EU.
International Trade Diversification Minister Jim Carr told reporters Wednesday the government is investigating the claims, noting that incidents involving forged documents are “rare” but not unprecedented.
Carr also said he wanted evidence the product imports in question originated from Canada.
“Someone is going to have to come up with some proof that there is something wrong with the product,” he said. “We don’t know where the product originated.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has confirmed that an issue involving export certificates had been identified that was specific to China, but that measures had been taken to address it.
Charlebois said that pork processors will have a number of veterinarians on staff to sign off on any products leaving the facility.
“Each federal facility will have a veterinarian working for the CFIA who will certify the exports,” he said.
Both Charlebois and Keogh said it’s easy to obtain photocopied documents from Canadian producers once the product has arrived in China.
Meanwhile, Carr said it’s not known whether there is a link between the recent import suspension of agriculture products and the escalating diplomatic rift with with China over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
On Wednesday, China renewed its demand to release Huawei’s chief financial officer and her lawyers have called on Ottawa to drop the extradition process to the U.S., where Meng is facing conspiracy and fraud charges.
Since her arrest in December, China has arrested two Canadians, sentenced two others to death and targeted Canadian agricultural products, blocking the imports of canola and pork.
Charlebois suggested China’s actions are directly related to Meng’s arrest, something Keogh disagrees with.
“If Canada were to drop the extradition, our nightmares with China would cease,” Charlebois said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday that ensuring food safety is the responsibility of the government and that Chinese authorities acted in accordance with the law.
“As for the Meng Wanzhou case you mentioned just now, I think our position is very clear. We ask Canada to take China’s solemn concerns seriously and immediately release Ms. Meng Wanzhou to let her return to China safely,” Geng told reporters in Beijing.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused China of “inventing excuses” to block canola imports and a product of the wider dispute involving Wanzhou’s detention.
Canadian pork producers could take a massive financial hit from the temporary ban.
In April 2019, pork exports to China totalled over $310 million, representing 22.7 per cent of Canada’s total, according to federal statistics.
China also represented Canada’s third-biggest export market for pork that month, behind the U.S. and Japan.
— With files from Jesse Ferreras and the Associated Press