China wants U.S. soybeans checked for coronavirus, further complicating the trade deal with Trump


More food shipped to China will now have to be cleared for COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that soybean importers asked exporters in the U.S., Brazil, and Canada to sign a letter guaranteeing that their cargo is not contaminated with coronavirus. U.S. soybean exporters told Reuters that they had yet to reply to China’s request, though Sergio Mendes, director general of the Brazilian export grain association Anec, said that his group was preparing a response. Still, Mendes said that COVID-19 contamination of soybeans would be nearly impossible given the automation of the soybean ship-loading process and the beans’ weeks-long journey to China.

“We would be guaranteeing the unimaginable,” Mendes told Reuters.

The report follows weeks of rising fears in China that imported food—meat, mainly—may lead to further outbreaks of COVID-19. And the new demands on soybeans specifically risk adding another layer of complexity to China’s promise to purchase more U.S. soybeans as part of the trade deal.

How we got here

Beijing is China’s most recent coronavirus hotspot, with more than 200 people testing positive for COVID-19 since the city reported a locally-transmitted case on June 11. The city had claimed to be free of COVID-19 for the preceding two months.

The outbreak now appears to be largely contained. Chinese public health officials traced its origin to the Xinfadi food market in southern Beijing, where investigators found COVID-19 particulates on cutting boards for imported salmon and other meats.

At the time of the discovery, health officials said it was unlikely that the virus spread from imported frozen foods, but still possible given that COVID-19 particles can stay alive longer at colder temperatures.

Last week, Hong Kong University epidemiologist Ben Cowling told Fortune that it is more likely the virus spread via humans who shopped at the market or handled the food, rather than by goods shipped across the ocean in refrigerated containers.

In any event, China has since halted imports of meat from a Tyson Foods plant in Arkansas that suffered a coronavirus outbreak among its workers. It’s also asked other frozen meat exporters to sign declarations that their products are coronavirus-free and launched a nationwide campaign to inspect food imports for coronavirus.

Inspecting frozen meat for coronavirus is one thing; doing the same for soybeans is another, says Darin Friedrichs, senior commodity analyst at FCStone in Shanghai

It’s implausible that soybean shipments could carry coronavirus across an ocean, he says.

“There’s no human interaction with soybeans,” Friedrichs says. “They get taken by truck to a grain elevator, then machinery moves it to a train or a barge, then machinery moves it onto a boat.”

The soybeans then sit on a cargo ship at air temperatures for three to six weeks on their way to China, according to Friedrichs.

According to a study published in The Lancet medical journal on April 2, the longest COVID-19 could survive on a surface at room temperature is seven days.

Anxiety over soybeans is likely “indicative of how much emphasis is being put on preventing reemergence of COVID-19 in China,” says Friedrichs. “[For] local officials, it’s better to err on the side of being overly cautious rather than not cautious enough.”

A trade challenge

China’s increased scrutiny of soybean imports may present an additional challenge to resolving the U.S.-China trade war.

On January 15, China and the U.S. agreed to a ‘Phase One’ trade deal, in which China agreed to purchase $36.5 billion worth of agricultural products from the U.S. in 2020.

China’s import of U.S. soybeans was crucial to meeting the goal. The crop accounted for 52% of all U.S. agricultural exports to China before the trade war started in 2017; trade of it plummeted as Washington and Beijing exchanged tariffs. The January deal was expected to jumpstart soybean exports to China to levels exceeding pre-trade war highs.

Then the coronavirus hit, slowing China’s soybean purchases, as economic lockdowns disrupted global supply chains. Through April 2020, China had purchased only $6.3 billion worth of agricultural products from the U.S., putting it well behind the pace needed to meet its target for this year, according to an analysis by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Despite the slow clip of purchases and escalating tensions between the two countries, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on June 18 that China was committed to honoring its ‘Phase One’ obligations. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that the deal remains “fully intact.” Yet his administration has publicly expressed frustration at the unhurried pace of China’s purchases—and that was before China requested the additional step of soybean coronavirus checks.

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