Fort Smith plant’s chicken barred by China; suspension cites state’s reporting

FORT SMITH – China last week suspended imports from a chicken plant in Fort Smith after “erroneous reporting” came from the Arkansas Department of Health, OK Foods said in a letter to customers.

The Health Department drew data from three processing facilities in the area, the company said, incorrectly inflating the number of positive coronavirus cases among workers at the chicken plant in question.

OK Foods, based in Fort Smith and owned by Bachoco in Mexico, informed customers of the incident in a letter obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The error has since been fixed and efforts to ship poultry to China again are ongoing.

“We appreciate Gov. Hutchinson and his staff, the Department of Health, the Poultry Federation and the Arkansas Department of Agriculture for their efforts to quickly correct the data,” OK Foods President and Chief Executive Officer Trent Goins said in the letter. “Together, we are working on a strategy to relist the company and resume exporting to China.”

The plant in question currently has no active cases.

“In all transparency,” Goins said, 60 workers at the plant have tested positive for covid-19 since March, about one-quarter of what the Health Department reported three weeks ago: 234 cases.

“Although all efforts are made for accuracy, the data contained in the reports are provisional, subject to change, and only updated when a new report is issued,” Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said in a statement Monday.

“In early September, it was brought to our attention that OK Foods had three separate processing facilities at one location,” he continued. “Until then, [we] had been attributing all OK Foods covid-19 cases to one facility.”

The Health Department corrected the error on Sept. 2, allocating the correct number of covid-19 cases to the appropriate OK Foods plant. This reduced the amount of total cases tied to the affected plant.

China is the world’s top meat importer, bringing in huge volumes of products in response to a shortfall created by African swine fever that decimated the country’s hog supply. Consumer concerns have grown as traces of covid-19 are found at meat markets and food packages in parts of the country.

The Chinese customs authority notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the suspension of imports from the plant on Sept. 13. Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, said China has been blocking meat and poultry imports in response to reported workplace outbreaks.

“It makes no sense to us” because the virus that causes covid-19 cannot be transmitted through food, he said citing federal health reports. There are signs of transmission through food packaging, however.

In August, Chinese authorities found traces of the virus on loads of imported frozen food, Reuters reported. Traces were found on imported squid packaging on Sunday.

In response to potential outbreaks China has blocked imports from 44 meat and poultry plants around the world, including two in Arkansas, the Poultry & Egg Export Council said.

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