Canadian trade minister suggests deliberate tampering by ‘somebody’ is at the heart of China’s meat ban

OTTAWA—The federal government has agreed to China’s demand to suspend approvals of all Canadian meat exports to China as Canadian food inspectors and the RCMP look into Beijing’s claim that veterinary health certificates on Canadian pork have been forged.

But the Canadian government says the suspicious shipment may not have even originated in Canada as a top Chinese official slagged lax Canadian export supervision for allowing the fake certificates to slip through.

On Tuesday, China banned all Canadian meat imports as Canada’s own investigation quietly expanded.

It began June 14 after Beijing notified Ottawa it had detected a banned additive in a shipment of pork tongue, and asked Canada to suspend all meat export permits.

Coming on top of China’s ban on Canadian canola, the trade restrictions form an alarming backdrop to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to Osaka, Japan for the G20 summit, as diplomatic tensions escalate between Canada and China.

Canada’s international trade diversification minister, Jim Carr, said Wednesday “somebody” may be tampering with Canadian exports or at least the reputation of Canada’s producers, even as he said neither Beijing nor Ottawa is deliberately trying to sabotage the relationship.

“Somebody is trying to use the Canadian brand to move product into the Chinese market,” said Carr, speaking in Toronto.

“There is an investigation going forward,” and federal officials are consulting the meat industry, Chinese counterparts and provincial officials about the allegations of forged export approvals, he said. Carr added he does not know how long the investigation, or the suspension, will last.

“We’re taking it seriously and working very hard to get to the bottom of it. We want to know why this is happening, in whose interest this could be, and working with all of our partners to get an answer as fast as possible,” Carr told reporters.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) was notified by Chinese officials about 10 days ago that China had detected ractopomine residue in a shipment of pork tongue, which carried a supposedly CFIA-approved export certificate.

Ractopomine is a feed additive that makes meat leaner. It is approved for use by Canada and the U.S., however not approved for use in other export markets including the European Union, Russia and China.

As a result, Canadian pork producers don’t use it. So Canadian pork products destined for consumption either domestically or internationally are supposed to be ractopomine-free.

“That’s why it was a surprise it was found,” said a Canadian official, speaking on background.

The meat inspection process in Canada is rigorous. Only trained CFIA veterinary inspectors are allowed to sign certificates of approval for meat products produced at slaughter houses or processing plants that supply products for interprovincial or international sale. Those meat export certificates are all unique, and contain numbers and information specific to the requirements of importing countries.

When Canadian officials examined the document that accompanied the suspicious shipment to China, “they found it was inauthentic,” said the official, speaking on a background basis.

CFIA expanded its own investigation but so far it has hit a dead end.

“The product’s origins are unknown,” said the official. “Somebody created, produced an inauthentic signed-off document to accompany a shipment that went into China and that shipment was not known to Canada, to CFIA.”

The company is not recognized by Canada, said the official. “It might not even be (from) Canada. Who knows where it came from? We can’t speculate. It’s an investigation. And it could be somebody taking advantage of our reputation.”

Carr said he did not believe the mystery might tarnish the reputation of Canadian exports.

“I don’t think it does because someone is going to have to come up with some proof that there’s something wrong with the product and that the product originates from Canada. We don’t know where the product originated so there are unanswered questions here and we seek to answer them quickly.”

Carr downplayed any suggestion that China’s ban was tied to its efforts to put a squeeze on Canada to release Meng Wanzhou, the high-profile Huawei executive arrested in Canada under the Canada-U.S. extradition treaty.

“We’re treating this as a technical issue. The Chinese are treating this as a technical issue,” he said.

“There is no tie that’s been explicitly made by anybody and we’re dealing with it on the surface of these inauthentic certificates. We want to know who is responsible, why they’re responsible and get the answers as fast as possible.”

It nevertheless adds pressure to Trudeau, who is en route to Japan to attend the G20 gathering on Friday of world leaders including China’s President Xi Jinping.

There is no guarantee the prime minister will secure his own bilateral meeting with the Chinese leader.

Trudeau wants Chinese authorities to release two detained Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, whose arrests in December were seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, and ease restrictions on Canadian canola which Canada says are unwarranted.

Speaking in Beijing earlier Wednesday, a Chinese government official said China blocked all Canadian meat products from entering the country, saying investigators had found up to 188 counterfeit approvals for Canadian pork.

China is Canada’s third-largest market for beef, veal and pork products, behind only the U.S. and Japan as the biggest consumer of Canadian meat exports, so this latest move is a blow to Canadian producers, just as China’s restrictions on canola exports slammed canola farmers.

Quebec Premier François Legault said Wednesday “of course it has a very large impact on pork producers in Quebec.”

He said he has asked federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau about financial assistance for those farmers and is seeking assurances it has nothing to do with the Meng case. Carr said it is “too early” to talk about matters such as compensation.

Geng Shuang, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, on Wednesday dismissed a suggestion the move was retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng.

“It is the responsibility of the Chinese government to ensure the safety of Chinese consumers and safeguard food safety in China. The relevant Chinese authorities are acting totally in accordance with law,” he said.

“As to the Meng Wanzhou case you just mentioned, our position is very clear. We urge the Canadian side to take our solemn concerns seriously, immediately release Ms. Meng Wanzhou and ensure that she returns to China safe and sound.”

He urged the Canadian side to “take this incident seriously, complete the investigation as soon as possible and take corrective measures that can effectively ensure the safety of food exported to China.”

According to a translation of his remarks to reporters that the foreign ministry posted, Shuang said China took “urgent preventive measures” and asked Canada to suspend the issuance of certificates for meat exported to China since June 25.

He blamed lax Canadian export supervision processes for allowing the fake certificates to slip through.

“These forged certificates were sent to the Chinese regulatory authorities through Canadian official certificate notification channel, which reflects that the Canadian meat export supervision system has obvious safety loopholes,” said Geng.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association questioned why beef products were included in the suspension, and noted that China, though still a relatively small market compared to Japan or the U.S., is nevertheless a growing one for Canadian beef exports.

The ban could hit both the live animal and processing sectors. But the association also said that exporters may be able to shift to other opportunities within the Asian region because of the recently ratified trans-Pacific free trade deal, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Canada’s free trade pact with South Korea.

“It is unfortunate that this disruption of trade has occurred. We are fully confident in our meat production systems in Canada and the safeguards we have in place,” said Bob Lowe, vice president of the Association.

“We will work closely with the Government of Canada to identify a solution to the suspension from China, while at the same time we will continue to work on expanding other export markets.”

Last week, Trudeau met with U.S. President Donald Trump to enlist U.S. support for Canada’s position vis-à-vis China.

Trump promised to “represent” Trudeau well in his own meeting with Xi, but offered no specific commitment to either press for the detained Canadians’ release or to drop the U.S charges against Meng, which are related to allegations Huawei tried to circumvent U.S sanctions on Iran.

“Anything I can do to help Canada, I will be doing,” Trump told reporters.

But the U.S.-China dispute is Trump’s main concern. He has held out the threat of further tariffs on China if no new trade deal can be reached.

Chinese authorities too are digging in.

Geng said Wednesday that China’s position is “very clear.”

“A trade war with additional tariffs will harm others as well as oneself and won’t help solve any problem.”

Canola Council of Canada spokesman Brian Innes said farmers hope there will be some resolution at the G20. “Predictable rules-based trade is critical to our industry — we hope world leaders agree on how to put impulsive actions behind us and return to predictability. This means we need to remove unjustified trade barriers and quickly find science-based solutions to regulatory concerns.”

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc