The COVID-19 pandemic has made Chinese authorities more vigilant regarding food imports into the country. Since January 1, 2022, a series of new rules came into effect, tightening the customs authority’s requirements on overseas food safety assessment and inspection, registration and filing of importers and exporters, product labeling, and food safety risk management.
The General Administration of Customs (GAC) released the Measures for the Safety Administration of Imported and Exported Food (GAC Decree No.249) and the Administrative Provisions on Registration of Overseas Manufacturers of Imported Food (GAC Decree No.248) on April 12, 2021. Both regulations took effect January 1, 2022.
In order to control food safety risks, the Import and Export Food Safety Measures (GAC Decree No.249) focuses on the management of both the imported and exported food chain. This document integrated several regulations and rules, including those for specific food products like meat, dairy, and aquatic products. It also includes regulations on record filing requirements by importers and exporters.
The updated Decree No. 249 went from 65 articles (in 2018) to 79. The additional rules cover among others, overseas facilities registration, quarantine and inspection, and product labeling. It also adds obligations for domestic food importers in ensuring food safety and clarifies the re-inspection rights of food producers and traders.
The new decree emphasizes that producers and operators are accountable for the safety of the food products they produce and handle, and introduces the concept of a conformity assessment, which covers the evaluation of foreign food safety management systems, the registration of overseas food export facilities, and required record filing by importers and exporters.
It also requires food importers to establish a system for review of their suppliers, including overseas exporters and production facilities, as well as stipulates the potential control measures in response to food-related incidents overseas that may impact food safety in China.
If imported food fails to meet the food safety standards or there is evidence that it poses potential hazards to human health, import will be suspended, and food will be recalled following the same procedure as with domestic food recall.
For both imports and exports, producers and operators may apply for a re-inspection if they object to the GAC's inspection results. However, the re-inspection may be rejected in one of the three scenarios, including when test results show microbiological indicators exceed the criteria.
The GAC may take control measures, such as increasing the proportion of supervision and sampling inspection of relevant imported food, and even require food importers to provide – by batches – the inspection reports issued by accredited testing agencies in case of a) any potential food safety risks that can be caused by food safety incidents in a foreign region or b) any safety problems of imported food are discovered by the Chinese customs agencies.
The GAC can even suspend or ban imports of relevant food products in several serious situations.
The measures recognize the importance of international agreements. Article 4 states that “import and export food producers and operators shall undertake import and export food production and operation activities in accordance with any international treaty or agreement entered into or acceded to by China and the laws, regulations, national food safety standards of China.”
Article 9 also states that “special requirements of any international treaty or agreement entered into or acceded to by China” shall apply if they exist.
The new version offers more detail on how the GAC can conduct overseas food safety inspection and assessment. In specific situations, including when one nation/region is applying to export a new type of food to China for the first time, or experiencing a significant outbreak of animal or plant disease, or undergoing a significant change to its food safety laws and regulations, the GAC can assess foreign food safety laws and regulations, organizational structure for food safety administration, prevention and control measures for animal and plant disease, among other things.
Such examination can occur in various forms, including “material examinations, video inspection, and on-site inspection,” or a combination thereof. (Article 14) The measures also provide for the procedure, termination and extension of such assessment and examination.
The registration and filing requirements for foreign exporters and domestic importers are also specify in the new decree. Overseas production enterprises that export food to China shall register with the GAC. The registration requirement has been criticized by some trading partners as “overly burdensome” and “beyond the extent necessary to protect against food safety risks.”
Overseas food exporters and agents, as well as domestic food importers, are required to make a filing with the customs agency as well.
The measures require food packaging and labelling to meet the Chinese requirements and set forth specific packaging conditions for cold fresh meat products, aquatic products, and dietary supplements.
Domestic food importers are required to establish an audit system for “overseas exporters and overseas production enterprises”, and to review their “food safety risk control measures” and ensure that the food complies with Chinese laws and standards
For food exports, the measures mandates exported food to "comply with the requirements stipulated in the standards of the importing country (region) or contracts” and “international treaties and protocols” when applicable. (Article 38)
In addition, producers of exported food are also required to meet Chinese legal requirements. For instance, they are required to “set up a complete and traceable control system for food safety and sanitation” and “ensure that the export[ed] food is produced, processed, and stored in consistent compliance with Chinese laws and regulations.” (Article 44)
Producers of exported food, as well as plantations and farms for raw materials of exported food, shall “file a record with the GAC.” In addition, China’s Food Safety Law requires all food manufacturers to obtain a license, and they could be subject to on-site verification.
The measures also provide for administrative penalties, including fines, for providing false information during paper filing, failing to cooperate with the GAC in inspection, refusing to comply with the labeling requirements, or other violations of the Food Safety Law. Any of the above-mentioned violations can trigger fines up to RMB 10,000.
Businesses involved in the export of food products to China should carefully consider the new requirements and keep abreast of developments to ensure continuous compliance and non-disruption of its supply chain.
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