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Salmon Shunned in China After Link to Beijing Virus Outbreak

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 6/16/2020 Bloomberg News

(Bloomberg) --

A fresh outbreak of coronavirus cases in Beijing is being blamed on imported salmon, prompting a nationwide boycott of the fish.

Salmon has been taken off the shelves in major supermarkets like Walmart Inc. and deleted from grocery delivery platforms across China, while top experts are warning people not to consume the omega-3 rich fish. Provinces and cities from Yunnan to Shanghai are testing the seafood at local wet markets for the virus.

The backlash came after the chairman of a major fruit and vegetable market called Xinfadi, the site of over 100 newly-detected infections in Beijing, said that the virus was traced to the chopping board used by a seller of imported salmon.

While it is unclear if the virus can be actually be transmitted through frozen food that’s later thawed, the furore has put a $700 million market for imported salmon at risk, dealing a blow to major exporters like Denmark, Norway and Australia.

The swift shunning of salmon reflects China’s growing fears over the abrupt resurgence of cases in its capital city -- the cultural and political center of the country where 20 million people reside. Over 20 housing compounds have been placed under lockdown and some schools closed while local officials race to track down people who’ve visited or had contact with the Xinfadi market.

Chinese authorities have contacted Norway seeking information about infection risk connected to the production of fresh salmon and the Scandinavian country aims to reply as quickly as possible to limit the impact on the industry, Norwegian Fisheries Minister Odd Emil Ingebrigtsen said in a statement on the government’s website Tuesday.

a screenshot of a cell phone: Salmon Surge © Bloomberg Salmon Surge

“We have yet to find out whether human beings transmitted the virus to salmon, or salmon contracted the virus first,” said Zeng Guang, a senior expert with the National Health Commission, in an interview with state media on Sunday. He warned Beijing residents not to eat raw salmon or purchase imported seafood for the time being.

Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of China’s Center for Diseases Prevention and Control said on Sunday that the virus can survive on the surface of frozen food for up to three months and that the agency “highly suspects” contaminated goods as the source of the latest outbreak.

Beijing Outbreak Grows to Nearly 100 Cases in Test for China

The salmon boycott is another setback for exporters of the seafood to China, after the coronavirus pandemic caused sales in the first four months of the year to plunge over 30%. Prior to the crisis, the four biggest exporters according to China customs data -- Chile, Norway, Australia and Denmark’s Faroe Islands -- had seen demand steadily grow to $686 million last year due to rising middle-class incomes and a shift to healthier diets.

The situation drove stocks of pork producers up on Monday, with Jiangxi Zhengbang Technology Co. jumping as much as 8.6% and Wens Foodstuffs Group Co. climbing as much as 4.7%. The gains were likely fueled by expectations that demand for the meat will rise as consumers shun seafood, said Ken Chen, an analyst with KGI Securities Co. in Shanghai.

Local authorities across China are heightening their scrutiny of wet markets and the seafood sold there. In provinces like Yunnan, Hubei and Shandong, fresh seafood and equipment like chopping boards and knives are being tested for the virus. Wet market workers are also being screened.

In a study published in April, researchers with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concluded that the coronavirus is not known to infect aquatic food animals or contaminate their products.

The risk “should be negligible” with “proper food handling and sanitation,” although their surfaces might potentially become contaminated when handled by people who carry the virus, scientists including Melba G. Bondad-Reantaso wrote.

(Updates throughout with details on seafood testing, China seeking information from Norway)

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