In China, there are over 1,400 mandatory national food safety standardsthatform a comprehensive regulatory system for the industry, which applies to both domestic and imported food. To guarantee a smooth transition each time new standards are introduced, a grace period is granted to food producers to adjust their products and labels, use up former packaging and labelling materials, and sell products manufactured or imported under the old standards to minimise packaging and food waste.
For food produced in China, the regulatory authority has been using the production date as the reference date for implementing new standards. This allows domestic products produced before the implementation date of new standards to continue to be sold until the end of their shelf life.
However, for imported food, the customs authority frequently uses the customs ‘inspection date’ as a reference when implementing new national standards. This is in accordance with the Announcement on the Implementation Time of the New Standard for Imported Food, issued in 2012 by the former General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. Taking into account the time required for long-distance transportation and customs clearance, the implementation date of new standards for imported food shortens the grace period by two to three months in comparison to that granted to food produced in China, which is inconsistent with the World Trade Organization’s National Treatment Principle.
As a result, the frequently used reference date for implementing new standards for imported food creates a trade barrier, as it often means that a large portion of imported food produced before new standards are implemented cannot enter the Chinese market. This increases production and operational pressure and costs for overseas food producers.
Since 2014, the Agriculture, Food and Beverage Working Group and its Paediatric Nutrition Sub-working Group, Food for Special Medical Purpose Sub-working Group and Dairy Industry Sub-working Group have sent comments for each round of public consultation on food-related standards, and submitted advocacy letters on the trade barrier caused by the uncertainty regarding the reference date of implementing new standards for imported food. Advocacy efforts also focussed on related compliance issues regarding food packaging, labelling and testing methods, among others, for all food categories.
On 28th July 2022, the National Health Commission issued 36 new national food safety standards and three amendment lists, which were set to be implemented on 30th December 2022. This would have granted a grace period of merely half a year for the industry, which would have been even shorter for overseas manufacturers if the ‘inspection date’ were still to be used as the reference date for implementing these new standards for imported food.
On 1st December 2022, Jörg Wuttke, then president of the European Chamber, submitted an advocacy letter to the General Administration of Customs of China (GACC) on behalf of the working groups, recommending that the production date be used as the reference date when implementing new standards for imported food to level the playing field.
On 30th December 2022, the GACC issued the Notice on Inspection Requirements for Implementation of National Food Safety Standards for Infant Formula, Processed Cheese and other Imported Foods (Notice No. 136) to clarify the regulation for the following food categories: infant formula, older infant formula, young children formula, processed cheese and cheese products, and condensed milk products.
Notice No. 136 confirms that products in those categories produced and imported before the implementation date of new national standards that comply with the old national standards can continue to be imported and sold until the end of their shelf life. This is the first official statement issued since 2012 to clarify the reference date for imported food. It guarantees that the listed imported foods can have the same reference date and grace period as their domestic counterparts, which helps to eliminate the trade barrier that had resulted in significant material waste and production pressure for overseas producers.
The industry expects additional food categories to be included on the list as more standards come into effect, so that eventually all imported food categories could be regulated using the production date as the reference date. The European Chamber’s Agriculture, Food and Beverage Working Group and its sub-working groups will continue to communicate with the GACC and advocate for the further removal of trade barriers for imported food, in order to advance EU-China trade and introduce a wider variety of European products to Chinese consumers.