A Chinese ban on pork and beef should not damage Canada’s international reputation as a reliable supplier of safe and high quality food, said industry officials.
Falsified export certificates on a shipment of frozen pork that landed in China earlier this month caused the ban, according to the Chinese government. The product also tested positive for ractopamine, a feed additive not allowed in China.
The Canadian government has turned over the investigation to the RCMP to find the origin of the documents and the meat.
The ban went into effect June 25 but shipments headed for China have not been stopped, said Gary Stordy of the Canadian Pork Council.
“This wasn’t a question about the health and safety of the pork that is in it. This is a question of export certificates being questionable. Up to June 25 all product on the water and moving toward China will continue,” he said.
It is big business. At the end of April, 146,188 tonnes of Canadian pork, worth more than $310 million, went to China. That represents a 52.8 percent increase in volume and an 80 percent increase in value over the same period in 2018.
Relations between China and Canada are strained due to China’s ban of Canadian canola and the arrest of two Canadian citizens there. Many in Canada believe China’s actions were in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, under a United States extradition request. However, the pork situation is different and it should be resolved quickly, observers said.
“One of the things the federal government has done appropriately is that there hasn’t been a move to ban imports from China,” said Danny LeRoy, an economist with the University of Lethbridge.
“That only has the effect of harming consumers in Canada. It does nothing to resolve the problem faced by cattle and hog producers in Canada,” he said.
Government officials must talk with their equivalent counterparts about the problem and how to resolve it, he said.
The Chinese embassy letter about the certificates was carefully worded and did not indicate any hostility toward Canada, said Al Mussell of Agri-food Economic Systems.
“It hints that the Chinese need all the pork they can find and they would rightly view Canada as a relatively high quality supplier of pork,” he said.
African swine fever is ravaging the Chinese hog industry and most trade analysts maintain that the Chinese need the meat despite recent tensions.
To preserve its reputation, Canada must act quickly and find out what happened, Mussell said.
“The right response on behalf of the Canadian government is don’t start out with the tag line ‘we have the purest, safest food system on the planet’ because clearly there are some problems with it,” he said.
“We have to reckon with the fact that we had a gap in our system. We need to treat the Chinese like customers and find this problem and we are going to resolve it,” Mussell said.
Canada would respond in the same way if the situation were reversed.
“If we were importing a product from China and we found a problem, either all Chinese product or certainly all the product from that specific supplier within China would go on 100 percent inspection,” he said.
Ted Bilyea, who was withMaple Leaf Foods and is past-chair of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, is confident the issue will be resolved soon.
“There is no pork brand anywhere in the world that is as strong as the Canada one. It does not exist anywhere else,” he said.
“It will not really make any difference to the parties we normally trade with. The brand is strong and this too will pass.”
The origin of the certificates and the pork needs to be found soon and offenders prosecuted if the law was broken, he added.
“If it is indeed a counterfeit certificate and that is what the government is saying, then the question is how can we make sure that can’t happen and I believe that is a fairly quick and simple fix,” he said.
He expects certificates will be made impossible to counterfeit and ultimately the system will be strengthened.
“If it improves everything and proves the authenticity is there, I think that may lead to a fairly prompt reinstatement,” he said.
As a beef producer, Bob Lowe does not want to see Canada’s reputation damaged. Beef was included in the ban because the same export certificates are used for both species.
“It is obvious China is looking for ways to show its displeasure with Canada but I really think this particular incident is different from what we have seen,” he said.
Lowe is vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
“We need to know what happens before we can pressure anything. All we can do is keep the government’s feet to the fire to make sure this investigation goes forward as fast as it can,” he said from his ranch at Nanton, Alta.
“If it is fraud and it is a Canadian company we have really got to put pressure on ourselves and our government to go to all of our trading partners to assure them that this is a one off. Depending on what happened, we have to work internally to fix the problem so it does not happen again.”
The issue of ractopamine, which is used to make cattle, pigs and turkeys put on more lean muscle, is a separate argument. The pork industry voluntarily decided not to use it, but some beef feedlots like Lowe’s add it to finishing rations.
“Ractopamine is one of those completely safe scientific things that allows us to produce more with less impact,” he said.
The product is allowed in Canada and the United States. At Lowe’s operation it means $20 per head more in profit.
“If we quit, we are at a substantial disadvantage to the U.S. in trade,” he said.
“We can’t change an industry for the sake of perception. We have to be there to be as efficient and sustainable as we can as our job to point out the benefits,” he said.