bad news in China for ‘Norway’s Ikea’: Listeria found in salmon, partial import ban

These aren’t the best days for Norwegian salmon in China. Just when it became known that China plans to block imports from three Norwegian counties on health grounds, Listeria was found in Norwegian salmon in Sichuan and Hong Kong.

First, news came from Norway’s food safety authority (Mattilsynet) that China would start forbidding importing salmon from the Norwegian counties of Nordland, Troms and Sør-Trøndelag, due to fears of ISA (infectious salmon anaemia) contagion to local fish farms. The Norwegians contend that such fears are unfounded: to begin with, there’s no way fish from Norway can pass the ISA virus to their Chinese brethren, since they arrive to China dead and frozen and are sold to humans. And the Chinese claim seems to be that Norway doesn’t comply with OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) standards, while the Norwegians assert they do and say they have provided documents to the Chinese authorities to back up that claim. According to an official from the Norwegian food authority who talked to Aftenposten, the Chinese have their own risk assessment report, which the Norwegians haven’t been able to see while having trouble “getting in contact” with their Chinese counterparts.

Chinese authorities had already found ISA in Norwegian salmon imports in Shenzhen in May last year and ordered the destruction of 13 tonnes of it. Other (other than ISA) tainted Norwegian salmon had been found and destroyed earlier that yea and in 2013.

News of the new import ban has made it back to Chinese news sites, including for example on a Ministry of Commerce domain, but still sourcing the story to the Norwegian food authority and largely with the same content (minus the Norwegian claim that they do comply with international standards), without an official confirmation from the relevant Chinese authority.

The ISA virus poses no risk to humans.

Meanwhile, Listeria has been found in Norwegian salmon imported by a Sichuan trading company, leading to the destruction of 6.5 tonnes. Norwegian salmon processed in Hong Kong was also found to be tainted and recalled, according to the local Centre for Food Safety. There’s no indication of any connection between the Listeria incidents and the ISA issue, and at least in the Hong Kong case independent authorities are involved.

These bad news come around the time when Norwegian PM Erna Solberg has emphasised the importance of salmon for the Norwegian economy (‘Salmon is Norway’s Ikea‘, a motto duly quoted by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce). Li Yong 李勇, head of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the first Chinese politician (he’s a former vice minister) to reach the top of such an organisation, was in Bergen earlier this month at t

he North Atlantic Seafood Forum, where he reportedly said he thinks Norwegian salmon exports are bound to increase in the long term, “also in China” (Sysla).

It’s hard to say if the ISA-related ban has anything to do with China’s protracted retaliation for the award of the Nobel peace prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 in 2010. I suppose the key is whether the Norwegian food authority statement that they do satisfy international requirements on ISA prevention is indeed true, i.e. whether the Chinese ban is actually justified.

Imports of Norwegian salmon were hit hard by the Nobel punishment (I’ve discussed some exchanges between the two countries that were affected by the crisis, and others that weren’t, towards the end of an article from 2013), so it wouldn’t be surprising for them to continue to be used as a diplomatic tool.

Relations remain at a low level. Last January, news emerged that Huang Nubo‘s purchase of land in Norway has been stalled until relations between the two countries are in order. In February, Chinese diplomats forecast “a negative impact” in relations with Norway after Norwegian authorities expelled a Chinese PhD student accused of spying. The Global Times (环球时报), a state-owned nationalistic tabloid, blamed the Norwegian government for a new freeze in bilateral ties, and quoted Cui Hongjian 崔洪建 from the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS, 中国国际问题研究所), a government-affiliated think tank: “The Norwegian government either wants to develop communication and good trade relations with China, or it will be shouting slogans about so-called human rights and democracy. They need to make up their minds.”

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