China has banned chicken from a Tyson Foods plant in Springdale, Arkansas, just as U.S. exports of poultry to Chinese buyers are spiking, according to sources, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

China, according to the sources, is saying it is taking the action based on the revelation from Tyson of employees that tested positive for the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson told Agri-Pulse that the company is looking into the reports of a Chinese ban on poultry from the Springdale facility.

“At Tyson, our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, and we work closely with the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service to ensure that we produce all of our food in full compliance with government safety requirements,” Mickelson said.

“There is no justification for taking such action,” USA Poultry and Egg Export Council President Jim Sumner told Agri-Pulse, stressing that illnesses at food processing facilities do not equate to food safety issues. “There are no food safety concerns. Tyson was (testing) proactively for worker safety and for the community and now they’re being punished by the Chinese for being so transparent.”

Not only does the virus not survive in food, but the poultry going to China is shipped at sub-zero temperatures, adding even more certainty that food safety should not be a concern, Sumner said.

But the Tyson plant isn't the only victim to Chinese COVID-19 concerns. 

Beijing’s suspicion of imported food ramped up last week when it cut off salmon imports from Norway after alleging that the fish was the source of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, according to reports from the New York Times. Chinese officials said they found the virus on cutting boards at a Beijing market, but imported salmon has since been cleared.

China also banned pork from a German producer on Thursday after 600 workers there tested positive, according to Xinhua, a Chinese state-owned media outlet.

Tyson released a statement Friday, saying it had tested 3,748 of its employees at seven of its Arkansas facilities from June 4-13 and 481 tested positive for COVID-19. Nearly all – about 95% - showed no signs of infection when they were tested.

“It is important to note that the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, USDA and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration agree that there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food,” Mickelson said.

“The results across our Northwest Arkansas facilities, and the country more broadly, reflect how much is still unknown about this virus, which is why Tyson is committed to providing information to our local health officials and enhanced education to our team members,” said Tom Brower, senior vice president of health and safety for Tyson Foods. “Through our inclusive approach to large-scale testing, we are finding that a very high level of team members who test positive do not show symptoms. Identifying asymptomatic cases helps the community, since other testing is often limited to people who feel unwell.”

The Chinese action comes as U.S. chicken exports to China are breaking new records, according to Sumner. China lifted a four-year ban on U.S. chicken in November and shipments began flowing in December.

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“It’s going great,” Sumner told Agri-Pulse. “In fact, for the month of April, China overtook Mexico as our number one broiler export market. We certainly hope it continues.”

The U.S. has shipped 100,000 metric tons of chicken to China so far this year and 55,000 tons of that trade happened in April, Sumner said. About 44% of that trade was chicken paws, a delicacy in China that’s mostly unwanted in the U.S.

April was the first month with no major COVID-19 disruptions in ports, opening trade channels wide open, he said.

“We’re hoping that’s the indication of our new China opportunities,” he said.

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