By Tracy Cabrera
MANILA – Aside from asking for a price watch of prime commodities in the local market, consumer groups are urging the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and other concerned government agencies to monitor the influx of frozen food items following reports from Chinese health officials that two cold-chain storage workers in the port city of Tianjin were infected with Covid-19.
Because of the unexpected infections, Chinese authorities are shifting focus to contaminated imports after a number of outbreaks have been linked to frozen food. This has prompted local groups in the Philippines to push for the local authorities to follow suit and guard the public from possible coronavirus transmission from such products, among them frozen pork and beef and cold storage processed meat and frozen seafood as well.
In China, workers in hazmat suits have been seen painstakingly screening food shipments across a country which has largely brought domestic infections under control but now blames a resurgence of local infections on imports.
Mass-testing campaigns have been rolled out after reports of coronavirus traces on imported food and packaging, with state TV showing workers hosing down food transport trucks with disinfectant and inspecting packages of frozen salmon.
In Wuhan, where Covid-19 first emerged late last year, authorities said they had detected traces of the virus on frozen beef from Brazil.
Four more cities reported last week that samples from imported food—including frozen Argentinean pork and Indian cuttlefish—had tested positive.
Customs inspectors across the country have so far tested more than 800,000 samples from refrigerated imports and suspended shipments from 99 overseas suppliers, senior customs official Bi Kexin disclosed.
Authorities have stepped up screening since traces of the coronavirus were found on equipment used to process imported salmon after a June outbreak.
In Tianjin, officials said the two infected workers “had previously both had contact with contaminated cold-chain food products.”
Customs data in September showed that Chinese meat imports had increased by more than 70 percent this year as the country’s food supply was disrupted by swine fever and heavy flooding which destroyed swathes of farmland.
The World Health Organization says “there is currently no evidence that people can catch Covid-19 from food or food packaging.”
Transmission of Covid-19 across countries on frozen food is “possible but it has not been comprehensively studied so we do not know the extent of this spread,” Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, opined.
Screening has been ramped up after the latest outbreak in Tianjin—just over 70 miles (112 kilometers) from the capital Beijing—was linked to food transport workers, amid growing fears of a second wave in winter.
Earlier this month, China banned visitors from countries including the United Kingdom and India and raised testing requirements for travelers from a number of others.
State media has also ramped up claims that imported food could have been to blame for the initial outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus was first linked to a seafood market.
Beijing insists that the source of the initial outbreak remains a mystery and that it may not have originated in China—a claim vigorously disputed by countries from the US to Australia.
The foreign ministry also floated a conspiracy theory earlier this year that the US military may have brought the virus to Wuhan last year.
In the local scene, Consumer advocacy group Laban Konsyumer Inc. (LKI) hit the Substitute Revised Consumer Protection bill in its current form and called for the creation of an external and exclusive consumer welfare body outside DTI that will enhance and further improve the protection of Filipino consumers nationwide.
In a statement, LKI president Vic Dimagiba revealed that he wrote a letter to Valenzuela representative Weslie Gatchalian, chairman of the House Committee on Trade and Industry, to relay his group’s concerns on the measure.
“Overall, we are not endorsing the Substitute Revised Consumer Protection bill in its present version, but we are proposing a leaner version in the light of other recently enacted laws, as well as pending bills that empowers consumer protection, and to avoid repetitive and redundant provisions. Our proposal shall eliminate the splitting of responsibilities among different implementing agencies over the same provisions of the bill,” Dimagiba announced.
The consumer advocate said that for food, drugs, medical devices, cosmetics and toys, and households or urban hazardous substances, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is empowered primarily by Republic Act (RA) 3702, as amended by Executive Order 175 and RA 9711.
Dimagiba added that RA 10611, or the “Food Safety Law,” also expanded the powers of the FDA and other agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, and strengthened the food safety regulatory regime in the country.
“For financial consumer protection and literacy, there is a . . . bill authored by (Quirino representative) Junie Cua, (titled the) ‘Financial Consumer Protection Bill’ or House Bill (HB) 6768. It has been passed on third reading and transmitted to the Senate on June 3, 2020. Very recently, HB 6122 by the Honorable Chairman on Internet Transaction proposed the creation of an E Commerce Bureau for e-commerce,” he said.
“The bulk of the proposed bill shall continue the consumer protection functions of the Trade and Agriculture departments. However, the Agriculture department’s primary duty is to ensure the growth of the agriculture sector. The same can be said for the Trade department as it pursues the industry and competitiveness development of the country,” he further said.
The consumer group suggested the government should establish a consumer protection entity whose primary mandate shall be exclusively consumer welfare and protection, and an agency outside the budgetary and manpower support of the DTI. (AI/MTVN)