The halting of a British pork plant’s sales to China after just a few workers contracted coronavirus highlights the risk that more facilities around the world could see exports disrupted.

China’s customs authorities said that a division of the U.K.’s Tulip Ltd. and a beef unit of Brazil’s Agra voluntarily stopped shipments to China after some workers tested positive. Tulip said three of its 640 workers at its Tipton, England, site tested positive – a relatively small amount compared with recent outbreaks at meat plants in Europe and the Americas.

The news follows China’s suspension of poultry imports from a Tyson Foods Inc. plant in the U.S., where hundreds of cases were reported, and a German abattoir has also voluntarily halted pork exports to the Asian country. While food consultant Gira said some companies may have freely stopped sales to China to avoid risking a ban, it raises concerns about interruption to trade.

Further sales disruptions would be a blow to Europe’s pork industry. China accounted for more than half of exports from the European Union – the world’s top shipper – in the first four months of the year and is the U.K.’s top customer. Plus, meat products sold to China often aren’t popular in Europe.

“The way things are going, I think there will be more” export disruptions, said Max Green, a meat and livestock analyst at IHS Markit. “That’s four plants now in less than a week, and they’re not all located in one country.”

Though exports from most meat factories around the world remain unaffected, there’s been a rise in outbreaks at plants in the past few months. China stepped up testing of imported meat in June after tracing a domestic outbreak to the chopping board of a seller of imported salmon. The tests were negative and officials agreed with global experts that food trade was unlikely to be responsible, but there are signs buyers remain wary.

China asked meat exporters to send a letter declaring they’ve complied with COVID-19 food safety rules during production, with similar measures for soybean shippers, people familiar with the matter have said.

The export halts may be a sign that some plants are self-policing and stopping shipments themselves rather than risking a ban, said Rupert Claxton, meat director at Gira. That means exports could resume once outbreaks ebb. China’s meat demand surged after an outbreak of African swine fever decimated its hog herd last year, and domestic prices remain high.

Tulip, which belongs to JBS SA’s Pilgrim’s Pride unit, said it’s continuing to test staff at the Tipton facility. Companies can boost measures to avoid large-scale outbreaks, but it’s difficult to avoid a handful of cases, according to IHS Markit’s Green.

“That would pretty much exclude a large chunk of the world’s meat plants,” he said. “It seems very unclear at this stage where they draw the line.”


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