Geoducks test OK, but what’s behind Chinese ban?

Now it is up to Chinese officials to decide upon shellfish imports to their country, as uncomfortable as that may be for U.S exporters. I’ve begun to learn about international trade policies to better understand the confusing actions of Chinese health authorities.

As you’ve probably heard by now, officials with the Washington State Department of Health have concluded from a new round of testing that arsenic in geoducks from Poverty Bay presents no legitimate health concern. That seems to contradict findings from Chinese health authorities, who cited high levels of arsenic in Poverty Bay geoducks when they suspended shellfish imports from the U.S. West Coast.

Unfortunately, the Chinese have failed to reveal how they came to their findings, and they discarded all the geoducks used in their tests. Divers from the Washington Department of Natural Resources collected new geoducks from Poverty Bay, and state health experts conducted new tests. The findings were released Tuesday, and I covered that in some detail in a story published in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription). Also, check out Water Ways, Dec. 24, to understand the different types of arsenic.

USTR report

Results from the Washington state health lab showed that arsenic levels in all parts of the geoduck came in under the Chinese limit of 0.5 parts per million, except for the skin. Dave McBride, a toxicologist for the state health department, told me that cooks in both China and the U.S. blanch the geoduck to remove the inedible skin, so that’s not a factor.

But even if one consumes the whole geoduck, tests on the “whole body” found only one composite sample out of 12 that exceeded the Chinese standard. Of course, it would have been more convincing if none of the whole-body samples came in above 0.5 ppm.

A private lab also tested geoducks from Poverty Bay, and those results came in even lower. The differing findings probably resulted from the different methods used, Dave McBride told me. It might be wise to try to reconcile the differences and report the scientific uncertainty (possible range) represented by the two techniques.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun talking to experts on Chinese trade, who say it is not unusual for governments around the world to use alleged health concerns to gain a trade advantage.

As I reported in yesterday’s story, the U.S. Trade Representative, a presidential cabinet post, reported to Congress at the end of last year about what appeared to be unjustified health concerns blocking a variety of agricultural imports into China:

“In 2013, serious problems have remained for U.S. exporters, who are faced with nontransparent application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, many of which have appeared to lack scientific bases and have impeded market access for many U.S. agricultural products.

“China’s seemingly unnecessary and arbitrary inspection-related import requirements also continued to impose burdens and regulatory uncertainty on U.S. agricultural producers exporting to China in 2013 … Products most affected in 2013 included poultry, pork and beef.”

Dongsheng Zang, a University of Washington law professor who specializes in Chinese trade, and Debra Glassman, faculty director of the UW’s Global Business Center, helped me understand the trade situation for yesterday’s story. Here are some of the key points I came away with:

  • Chinese officials don’t always base their decisions on the best evidence,, even though agreements under the World Trade Organization require them to do so. In 2011, China stopped imports of oysters from Washington state following reports of a few people getting sick from eating raw oysters from Hood Canal. Zang says Chinese officials based their actions only on “media reports.”
  • Import bans often come quickly and take a long time to resolve. That happens not just in China but in other countries and the European Union, especially when the dispute must be resolved by the World Trade Organization.
  • International agreements require that any import restrictions must be the “least-trade-restrictive” to protect the public, such as banning shellfish from specific bays where problems are identified, Glassman said.
  • The Chinese ban on U.S shellfish could be designed for a domestic audience inside China. “I can only speculate,” Zang said. “Food safety is a huge issue in China. It’s really hard to say whether this (geoduck ban) is about public health or domestic policy.”

An official in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington, D.C., told me (on background) that the office is watching this issue closely. If the shellfish ban develops into a full-fledged trade dispute, that office will become involved.

I realize that geoduck harvesters and government officials don’t want to accuse the Chinese of acting inappropriately. They just hope that the ban will be lifted without a drawn-out dispute. Meanwhile, those in the industry are losing millions of dollars by being shut off from their most important market for the giant clams.

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