Canadian companies that ship live, frozen and processed lobster to China are on their own when it comes to a new demand that they assume liability for any COVID-19 contamination in order to access their second largest market.
Chinese customers want Canadian shippers to sign a declaration their lobster is free of COVID-19, and assume liability if it’s detected in China.
The stipulation has alarmed shippers like Osborne Burke of Victoria Co-op Fisheries, a Cape Breton company that ships frozen lobster to China.
“Absolutely under no condition would we sign anything,” he said.
Burke, who is also president of the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance, does not recommend members sign anything either.
“We would have concerns because of the potential to be open for liability under Chinese rules and regulations, [which] is scary at the best of times,” he said.
“We’re not going to ship to particular customers that require something that will place us under Chinese rules and regulations with no control after the product leaves Canada as to who’s handled it, how they’ve handled it and who can potentially contaminate it on the other side of the world.”
Global Affairs Canada not saying whether shippers should sign declaration
On Friday, the province of Nova Scotia asked Global Affairs Canada whether shippers should sign the declaration.
In an email obtained by CBC News that was sent to a provincial official, Callie Stewart of Global Affairs Canada did not provide guidance.
“At the moment, as the request came directly to the Industry from industry, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (who are the Government of Canada lead on this) have left it to the discretion of the Associations/Exporters to decide if they want to sign them or not. We are aware some Associations have already signed them,” she wrote.
The province declined comment on the matter Monday. Spokesperson Tracy Barron referred inquiries to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Most Canadian lobster sent to China comes from Nova Scotia
It’s no surprise Nova Scotia was interested. In 2019, sales of live lobster alone from Canada to China were worth $457 million, with most of that coming from Nova Scotia.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell have travelled to China to promote lobster exports, hailing soaring sales there as a major economic success story.
The Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance has lawyers from the Atlantic Canadian law firm Cox and Palmer drafting a document lobster shippers will send to customers in China that asserts the safety of the product without assuming liability.
“We can’t wait for government. We’re hopeful that will be acceptable … Somewhere, we have to stand take a stand or push back and say this does not make any scientific sense,” said Burke.
No evidence of COVID-19 transmission in food: Canada
In her email to the province, Stewart said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has already responded to a letter from customs officials in China asking for assurances on exported products.
“The official message is: “There is currently no scientific evidence that food or food packaging is a likely source or route of transmission of the virus,” Stewart wrote.
Burke wants the food inspection agency to provide those assurances in letters to shippers, who can then pass them on to their Chinese customers.
Increased border inspections
The demand for a COVID-19 liability declaration is the second border impediment to emerge in China in June.
Sales were rebounding after the market collapse in February 2020 because of the pandemic.
But after a COVID-19 outbreak this month was traced to a cutting board for Atlantic salmon at a food market in Beijing, Chinese authorities responded by greatly increasing random testing of imported seafood.
That forced Nova Scotia shippers of live lobster to cancel air cargo shipments rather than risk having live lobster wait for up to 36 hours for test results.
Sources tell CBC News testing of seafood shipments sped up in the days prior to the demand for a liability declaration.
The border measures come amid rising tensions between Canada and China.
Espionage charges were laid Monday against Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Experts say this was in retaliation for the pending extradition of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at Chinese tech giant Huawei. She was arrested by Canadian authorities in Vancouver at the request of the U.S. government over fraud charges related to trade with Iran.
Hands-off approach confirmed
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a brief statement in response to inquiries from CBC News.
“The Government of Canada has been made aware of the Chinese trade associations or importers’ requests for a statement or a letter of attestation confirming that exporters are following internationally recognized guidance to prevent the contamination of food and food products with COVID-19,” the agency said.
“Since these are industry to industry requests, the completion of these attestations is left to the discretion of exporters and/or Canadian stakeholders.”