- China has halted nationwide sales of French wine over
fears that blood infected with "mad cow" disease might have been
used in the wine-making process in France.
- It is a perplexing ban from a medical point of view,
but not from a business one. China's hypersensitive customs and quarantine
officials have prohibited one food product after another this year, citing
threats to the nation's health and in the process protecting domestic agriculture
and the Chinese food industry.
- "If they can ban, they will ban," says one
European agriculture official, noting that China was the only country in
the world to have prohibited sales of Dutch poultry after one chick, which
was anyway not in the commercial stock, was diagnosed with Newcastle disease,
or chicken plague.
- Over the last six months, China has at some time imposed
bans on a whole range of farm imports. They include: Madagascar pigs, Zimbabwean
horses and horse-related products, cloven-footed animals from the Middle
East as well as meat and dairy products from Belgium, Holland, France and
- The bans are not necessarily just protectionism in the
name of health and hygiene. Officials at the State Administration of Inspection
and Quarantine say the prohibitions are based on proven evidence of potential
danger to Chinese people and the country's livestock. And, in some cases,
the threat to health is real.
- But, in others, there may also be commercial and political
rationale behind Beijing's extreme caution. China's food products are blocked
from many markets and some officials suggest Beijing may be seeking to
get some negotiating leverage to open foreign markets.
- The pernickety way in which Chinese officials have on
occasion seized on the tiniest evidence of a health scare is also an expression
of the anxiety at work in China's sometimes capricious bureaucracy. "Officials
do not want to take any risk at all of allowing a disease into the country
and then getting blamed for it," says one observer of the food industry.
"It's too dangerous for them personally."
- The logic behind what one Frenchman called the government's
"ludicrous interference" in the sale of French wine in China
is hard to fathom.
- The problem dates back to June, when it was reported
in France that nine small winemakers in the south of the country had been
caught defying a European ban on the use of a by-product of bovine blood
to help clear the wine of sediments in the filtering process.
- According to French officials, the amount of wine involved
was small - 85,000 litres out of France's annual national output of 5.4bn
litres. The potential dangers of the traditional use of the bovine blood
by-product in wine-making are unclear. The cases of wine made using blood
had been seized and are likely to be destroyed. Anyway, none of the wine
involved was destined for export.
- The French hope that, with the offer of certificates
guaranteeing that no blood was used making the wine, the issue can be cleared
up and sales of French wine, which reached nearly 8m litres last year,
- "Some people might say there is a domestic lobby
of winemakers in China who want to say that French wine is no good,"
said one exasperated French trade official yesterday, adding that he did
not know how much damage the state media reports might have done to the
image of French wine in China.
- China is the world's fastest growing market for wine.
Domestic wine production grew by 30 per cent last year and output has multiplied
30-fold since 1980.
- But, the Chinese industry cannot meet the growing demand
for high-grade wine, prompting a 65 per cent rise in imports over the last
- Perhaps, one French official commented, there was not
a commercial reason for the ban, although "it is hard to discover
the grounds for it".