Understanding China’s New Rules on Import and Export Food Safety

Posted by Written by Zoey Zhang and Qian Zhou Reading Time: 7 minutes

China has enforced new rules on import and export food safety from January 1, 2022. The new rules provide more details on 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 measures come at a time when China’s customs agencies have already tightened scrutiny of imported food products during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

Stricter regulatory environment for food importers and exporters

The Import and Export Food Safety Measures (GAC Decree No.249) focuses on the management of both the imported and exported food chain, with an aim to mitigate food safety risks. The new GAC Decree No. 249 has integrated several import and export food safety 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.

Broader scope of the new measures

Compared with the 2018 version of the Import and Export Food Safety Measures, the updated GAC Decree No. 249 has increased to 79 articles from 65 articles.

The new Measures cover a broad range of requirements on food exports to China, including overseas facilities registration, record filing by importers and exporters, quarantine and inspection, and product labeling, among others. It also adds obligations for domestic food importers in ensuring food safety and clarifies the re-inspection rights of food producers and traders.

Food safety requirements for imports and exports – major changes in GAC Decrees No.249

To put it briefly, the GAC Decree No.249 presents the following major changes:

  • Emphasizes that producers and operators are accountable for the safety of the food products they produce and handle.
  • 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.
  • Requires food importers to establish a system for review of their suppliers, including overseas exporters and production facilities.
  • Elaborates on the on-site inspection procedures conducted by Customs at ports of entry.
  • Stipulates the potential control measures in response to food-related incidents overseas that may impact food safety in China.

How to read the changes

Overseas food safety assessment and examination

According to the GAC Decree No. 249, the GAC is authorized to assess and examine the food safety management system and food safety status of a foreign country (region) in specific conditions.

The newly added or revised Articles 10 to 17 explains what can trigger the GAC’s examination of enterprises that are based in a foreign country / region (Article 12):

  • Foreign country / region seeks to export a new type of food to China for the first time.
  • Foreign country / region significantly adjusts their food safety or animal and plant quarantine laws and regulations.
  • Foreign country / region seeks to change the inspection and quarantine requirements for a certain type of food to be exported to China.
  • Foreign country / region experiences an outbreak of animal or plant diseases or food safety incidents.

The GAC Decree No. 249 authorizes the GAC to examine the foreign origin destination / foreign country’s laws and regulations related to food safety and animal and plant quarantine, the organizational structure for supervision and administration of food safety administration, prevention and control measures for animal and plant disease, etc. (Article 13).

The procedure to do this can include document review, video inspection, on-site inspection, or a combination of methods (Article 14).

Registration, filing, and obligation of food exporters and importers

The same as before, overseas food producers are required to register with the GAC; overseas food exporters and agents should make a filing with the GAC; and domestic food importers should file with the local customs agency (Article 18 and 19).

One change is that the GAC Decree No. 249 adds new obligations for overseas exporters and agents as well as domestic importers. Such traders are obliged to process the modification formalities within 60 days if there is a change on their filed information (Article 20).

In addition, domestic food importers will need to establish an “audit system” for overseas exporters and producers with a focus on examining the formulation and implementation of their food safety risk control measures as well as whether the food complies with the laws, regulations, and national food safety standards of China (Article 22).

Imported food product labeling requirements

Consistent with the existing rules, the GAC Decree No. 249 requires food packaging and labelling to meet the Chinese requirements. What’s more, the document adds that imported food products shall be accompanied by an instruction manual in Chinese if Chinese laws require so.

Besides, the GAC Decree No. 249 sets forth specific packaging requirements for cold fresh meat products and aquatic products. As to imported health food and dietary supplements, the Measures require the Chinese label must be printed on the smallest sales packages and shall not be affixed thereto (Article 30).

The GAC Decree No. 249 lists at least seven items to be inspected on site when food products are exported to China, including their labeling, packaging, the means of transportation, storage areas, etc. (Article 28).

Imported food safety issues

The newly added or revised Articles 34 to 37 have detailed how the GAC will manage imported food safety risks.

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 (Article 34).

The GAC can even suspend or ban imports of relevant food products in several serious situations, including (Article 35):

  • Exporting country (region) is subject to a significant epidemic in flora and fauna, or to a significant change in food safety system.
  • Imported food is contaminated by pathogens of epidemic or evidenced to be capable of becoming the media of spreading such epidemics, with no possibilities of taking effective sanitary treatment.
  • The imported food for which the GAC has required the submission of inspection reports is discovered again to be non-conforming in such aspects as safety, health, and environmental protection.
  • Foreign food producers are in serious violation of Chinese laws and regulations.

If imported food fails to meet the food safety standards or there is evidence that it poses potential hazards to human health, the import will be suspended, and food will be recalled following the same procedure as with domestic food recall (Article 37).

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 following scenarios (Article 67):

  • Test results show microbiological indicators exceed the criteria.

Backup samples for re-inspection have expired.

Other reasons stipulated by the government from time to time.

Penalties for violating the rules

The GAC Decree No. 249 has added that providing false information on 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, may trigger fines up to RMB 10,000.

Changes to the registration procedures of overseas manufacturers of imported food

As compared to the previous Administrative Provisions of the People’s Republic of China on Registration of Overseas Manufacturers of Imported Food (amended by GAC Decree No. 243 on November 23, 2018), the new GAC Decree No.248 entails multiple changes to the registration of overseas manufacturers of imported food:

  • Expands the scope of overseas manufacturers of imported food that need to make the registration
  • Adjusts the registration process and application materials to be submitted
  • Imposes new packing and labeling requirements
  • Clarifies who is the competent authority

Registration scope expanded

Previously, the categories of imported food manufacturers that needed to be registered with GAC were announced through the Implementation Catalogue of Registration of Imported Food Overseas Production Enterprises, which mainly include meat (including casings), aquatic products, dairy products, bird’s nest products, bee products.

The new rule deleted the contents related to the catalogue system and expanded the scope of registration to all overseas production, processing, and storage enterprises exporting food to the territory of China (Article 2).

Changes to the method for registration

Previously, all enterprises that wanted to be registered had to be recommended by the competent authority of their home country.

Under the new rule, categories of food that need to be recommended for registration by the competent authorities of overseas production enterprises include: meat and meat products, casing, aquatic products, dairy products, bird’s nest and bird’s nest products, bee products, eggs and egg products, edible oil and oil, filling noodles, edible grain, grain milling industry products and malt, fresh and dehydrated vegetables and dried beans, spices, nuts and seeds group, dried fruit, roasted coffee and cocoa, special dietary foods, health foods. Enterprises producing food outside China other than the listed food may apply to the GAC for registration by themselves or by entrusting agents (Articles 7 and 9).

Application materials

  • Under the new rule, after the food safety management system evaluation of the home country, the following materials will no longer be required: animal or plant epidemic material, veterinary health material, public health material, food production enterprise registration management material, requirements of hygiene, as well as material regarding the competent authorities’ set and personnel, etc.
  • However, the application process will now require the following material documents: the examination report made by the competent authorities of the country (region) where the enterprises are located and the enterprise identity certificate, which emphasizes that the overseas production enterprises possesses the legal qualifications in the country (region) where they are located (Article 8).

Packing and labeling

Previously, enterprises were required to indicate the registration number on the exterior packing of the food.

Under the new rule, when a registered enterprise exports food to China, it is required to indicate its registration number in China or the registration number approved by the competent authority of the country (region) where it is located on the interior and exterior packing of the food (Article 15).

Valid period of the registration

Previously, the registration validity period for imported food manufacturers was four years. Under the new rule, the registration shall be valid for five years (Article 16).

Competent authority

Previously, the competent authorities of the countries (regions) where overseas food production enterprises are located in these Provisions included the official departments, authorized agencies, and industry organizations responsible for food safety and hygiene in the countries (regions) where overseas food production enterprises are located.

Under the new rule, the competent authority of the country (region) where the overseas manufacturer of imported food is located shall refer to the official authority responsible for regulation of food safety and hygiene of the country (region) where the overseas manufacturer of imported food is located (Article 26).

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