Food imported into China has to undergo commodity inspection first before going through customs clearance. Failing the inspection, the products are not allowed to enter the country and will be returned to the consignor.
For food passing commodity inspection, customs clearance formalities and tariff payments follow, with procedures the same as for other imported goods.
China classifies imported foods into three broad categories: general, food for special dietary uses and health foods.
To import pre-packaged foods, advance action has to be taken to prepare labelling as required by the Chinese mainland. This step plays a very important part in determining whether the food product can be imported smoothly. However, this step is often overlooked, causing a lot of problems.
I. Supervisory workflow for imported food inspection and quarantine
(A) Receipt of inspection application
1. Items requiring inspection
They include: food, food additives, food containers, packaging materials, food utensils and equipment to be imported, or food generally known as "imported food". All the above food items must apply for inspection regardless of whether they enter China by way of normal import or in other forms such as processed with supplied materials, free giveaways, consignment, duty-free items or returned export goods.
2. Preparation before import
Before the food is imported, the applicant must have ready the commercial invoice, packing list and sales contract of the food product. The applicant must also submit the following documents in compliance with China's relevant rules and regulations: approval document, health certificate, quality inspection certification, country of origin certificate, as well as certificate of use and certificate of ingredients regarding pesticides, fumigants and food additives. Attention must be given to the following special cases:
(1) Imported pre-packaged foods must come with Chinese labelling, the content of which should comply with theGeneral Standard for the Labelling of Pre-packaged Foods (GB7718-2004). Pre-packaged alcoholic beverages should comply with the General Standard for the Labelling of Pre-packaged Alcoholic Beverages (GB10344-2005), while pre-packaged foods for special dietary uses should comply with the General Standard for the Labelling of Pre-packaged Foods for Special Dietary Uses (GB13432-2004).
(2) According to the stipulations of the Measures for the Administration of Health Food, even before importing health foods, the importer or agent must make an application to the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), which will issue an Imported Health Food Approval Certificate to the imported health food inspectorate. Upon import, the inspection and quarantine department at the port of entry will handle the application for inspection and supervise the inspection based on this certificate. Only health foods passing the inspection will be allowed to enter the country.
(3) New resource foods imported into China for the first time must meet the same basic requirements for food importation. Before import, an application has to be made to the inspection and quarantine department and the products can only be imported after being checked, inspected and granted approval by SFDA. To apply for approval, the applicant has to submit samples of the new resource food as well as health assessment information provided by the exporting country (region), including the food product's physical and chemical properties, toxicological assessment, quality standards, production processes, efficacy, amount of use, inspection method, and relevant international standards and information.
(4) New types of additives on imported foods must comply with the stipulations of China's Measures for the Administration of Food Additives. Their approval procedures are basically similar to those for new resource foods, in other words they have to be checked and inspected by the inspection and quarantine department and approved by SFDA before import. To apply for approval, the applicant must submit samples of the food additives, health assessment information provided by the exporting country (region), approval certificate issued by the competent foreign organisation or international organisation, assessment information, and scope and amount of use of the additives. The additives can only be imported after obtaining approval.
(5) For products under China's Catalogue of Quarantine Approval for the Entry of Animals and Plants, the owner of the product must complete the quarantine approval procedures before signing the sale contract and obtaining the entry animal and plant quarantine certificate.
(6) Before or when aquatic products and meats enter China, the owner of the product must present the inspection and quarantine certificate (original copy) issued by the relevant government department of the exporting country or region.
(7) Imported meats and aquatic products from certain countries must come from foreign enterprises already registered in China.
3. Handling of application for inspection
According to the regulations governing application for inspection, the inspection and quarantine department is responsible for checking the information and qualification documents furnished by the applicant. For applications meeting requirements, they will be processed, a "customs clearance document" will be issued and the cargo will be released for the applicant to complete customs declaration and cargo delivery formalities.
(B) On-site health supervision
On-site health supervision of imported foods includes: on-site enquiry and investigation, on-site hygiene inspection, on-site investigation and evidence collection, formulation of on-site control measures for incidents of contamination, on-site sensory inspection and treatment of imported food not meeting health standards and hygiene requirements. The focus of on-site health supervision varies according to the different types of imported food.
1. On-site health supervision over large quantity imported foods
Large quantity imported foods mainly refer to grains, sugar, oil, aquatic products and dairy products (in large packages), with the majority being transported by container ship or in bulk. After application for inspection has been made, the officials concerned must go to the unloading site promptly and conduct health supervision over the imported food and its means of transport, unloading site, unloading machinery, storage venue and warehouse. Imported food is required to be unloaded at special unloading sites and the site must be clean and free of contaminants; the unloading machinery and equipment must be clean and not have oil leakages, serious paint failure or scaling; the floor and walls of the warehouse must meet health requirements and must be free of live pests and rats; and the means of transport must be dry, padded and complete with rain-proof equipment.
After the ship has entered the port, the inspection and quarantine officials must board the ship before unloading to conduct health supervision. Their duties include checking the conditions of the cargoes and conducting detailed on-site inspection such as:
(1) the types of cargo carried in the previous round;
(2) the types of cargo carried in the current round and their quantity;
(3) ways of cleaning and cleansing the cabin before the loading of the current round of cargoes;
(4) port of loading and date of shipping, and whether the cargoes are re-exported;
(5) any incidents such as marine incidents during the voyage;
(6) for frozen foods, the condition of refrigeration;
(7) soliciting and examining documents related to the cargoes, such as fumigation and cabin inspection certificates, cargo stowage plan etc.
Afterwards, the officials will, in the company of the shipper, go to the cabin to inspect whether the food stowed is mixed with pesticides, chemical fertilisers and other chemicals; whether the food has been affected by contaminants, decay, foreign objects, mould, foreign smells, worms and other sensory abnormalities. For frozen foods, whether they have been defrosted, whether the packaging is intact, and whether they meet hygiene requirements. Before unloading and during the whole process of unloading, health supervision over the wharf, warehouse, unloading ground, and transportation and loading equipment will be carried out thoroughly. If any of these are found to be in contravention of health requirements, they must not be used for storing, handling or transporting the imported food.
2. On-site health supervision over small quantity imported foods
Small quantity imported foods mainly refer to imported foods of a single type weighing under 100 tonnes, with the majority being packaged or standardised packaged foods. Their characteristics are diversity in variety, small in quantity and varied in the forms and materials of packaging.
On-site health supervision mainly includes: whether the form of packaging and packaging is intact, whether the packaging has sustained any damage or leakage, whether the packaging container and means of transport are clean and meet hygiene requirements, and whether the food is stowed or mixed with toxic or hazardous substances; for certain food products, inspection is carried out to detect whether there are any abnormalities in their appearance, colour, smell, taste, elasticity and sound; whether the food contains toxic or hazardous substances, whether it has been contaminated by pests, and in the case of frozen food, whether it has been defrosted; for small quantity standardised packaged foods, the food labelling must be checked to see if the type and quantity of the food conform with those on the application for inspection form.
(C) Sampling and inspection
(1) Sampling is carried out according to the different categories, types, packaging forms and inspection requirements of the food. Unless otherwise specified, sampling requirements provided in GB/T5009.1 should be met.
(2) Sampling tools and containers must be kept clean and hygienic to prevent unclean containers from contaminating the samples.
(3) Sampling quantity: for large quantity food, sampling will be taken from the upper, middle and lower sections of the cargo, with one mixed sample weighing 2 kg taken from each section. For small quantity imported food, 1% will be taken as sample, with the number of samples of each type of food not less than three pieces and the weight of each sample not less than 0.5 kg.
(4) Sampling points: for bulk food, sampling will be taken from the four corners and centre of the cabin from the same level of the cargo (known as quincunx sampling), with each sample taken from not less than five points.
(5) For the sampling of food products taken according to the date of production and production batch number, sampling will be taken at a certain ratio at the wharf or warehouse after the cargo has been unloaded by the cargo owner or agent.
(6) Should pests be found, special sampling should be taken to collect live pests, dead pests or parts that have undergone pathological changes for quarantine test at laboratories.
(7) After sample taking, a "random sampling/sampling certificate" in duplicate will be issued and signed by the cargo owner or agent and the sample taker, with one copy to be kept by the cargo owner and one copy by the inspection and quarantine department.
After sample taking, the original sample will be divided equally into three portions (with each portion weighing not less than 0.5 kg) for inspection, re-inspection and safekeeping for examination or arbitration purposes respectively.
Determining principles of the inspection items:
(1) Where relevant health standards exist in China, inspection and quarantine items would be determined according to these national health standards.
(2) Where relevant standards do not exist in China, reference can be made to industry or local standards.
(3) Where none of the above mentioned standards exists, reference can be made to international standards.
(4) Food products which have previously failed inspection will be listed as key items for inspection.
(5) In cases where certain foods in certain countries or regions are known to contain toxic or hazardous substances or likely to be contaminated by toxic or hazardous substances during a certain period, inspection of the substances concerned will be conducted.
(6) For food originating from an epidemic area, especially food which is more prone to carrying infectious germs, inspection targeted at the infectious germs concerned will be carried out.
(7) For imported food contaminated or likely to be contaminated by toxic or hazardous substances in the course of transportation, inspection of the content of the contaminant will be carried out after detailed study of the type and toxicity of the contaminant has been conducted.
(8) According to the requirements for inspection and quarantine of food categories listed in the Catalogue of Entry-Exit Commodities, imported food requiring quarantine must undergo inspection and quarantine.
(D) Laboratory tests
After the laboratory receives a sample, the sample number, name, quantity and weight listed on the inspection form will be checked before the sample is sent out for testing. Lab tests are then carried out promptly and precisely in accordance with national regulations. The tests generally cover: sensory inspection, physiological and chemical tests, nutrient analysis, micro-organism test, acute toxicity test, radioactive substance test and pest/disease inspection.
(E) Health assessment and certificate issuance
1. Health assessment
Based on the provisions of food hygiene laws and regulations, on-site health supervision findings, lab test results and the state of food hygiene, a comprehensive assessment is made and eventually conclusive comments will be made.
2. Certificate issuance
After the imported food has undergone inspection and health assessment and is found to pass, a qualified health certificate will be issued. The cargo owner or agent may import, sell and use the imported food based on the certificate. For imported food that fails, a non-qualified health certificate will be issued and the food products will be handled according to the principles of handling imported food. At the same time, the cargo owner or agent will be notified of the inspection result.
3. Handling of imported food
There are six ways of handling imported food according to its actual hygienic state: good for consumption, return, re-processing, change of use, destruction and others.
(1) Pass: imported food found to meet China's food health standards and hygiene requirements based on health investigation and test results is good for consumption by human beings.
(2) Return: imported food found not to meet China's food health standards and hygiene requirements is deemed as not fit for consumption or sale within the Chinese territory, and has to be returned to the consignor.
(3) Destruction: this is the most serious way of handling unqualified imported food. It applies to imported food which is badly decayed, moulded, worm-eaten, carrying infectious or harmful germs, seriously contaminated by toxic or hazardous substances, far exceeds expiry date, and has sensory abnormalities.
(4) Re-processing: this applies to imported food which does not meet health standards and is not fit for consumption or use but can meet health standards or hygiene requirements if processed or treated by the right processing or treatment methods.
(5) Change of use: this applies to imported food which has significantly exceeded set levels and cannot be processed or treated by any processing or treatment methods, yet it still has other uses such as it can be used as feedstuff (provided that it meets the health standards and requirements for feedstuff) and non-food industrial raw materials.
(6) Others: this applies to special cases, for instance, qualified food which is due to expire may be sold by a certain date.
(F) Follow-up management
1. For the handling of unqualified food, the inspection and quarantine department will keep a record of the time and place of handling, the responsible staff, handling method etc, and photos will be taken for filing purpose.
2. To clamp down on food products imported by illegal channels and regulate the sale of imported food, the inspection and quarantine department will collaborate with relevant departments such as the industry and commerce administration and technical supervision department to carry out supervision and inspection of imported food on the market.
3. Efforts will be made to supervise the recall by importers and production enterprises of unqualified imported food already on sale in the market.
II. Label inspection
When applying for inspection, the applicant must furnish the necessary information according to the regulations governing application for inspection and provide the following materials related to label inspection:
1. Sample and translated version of import-export food labelling
2. Content of label inspection
Label inspection includes:
(1) Inspection of the format of the imported food label
(2) Inspection of compliance of the imported food label
3. Handling of label inspection findings
When carrying out inspection and quarantine of import-export food, the inspection and quarantine department will check whether the content of the import-export food label meets the requirements of the relevant laws, regulations and standards, and also check the truthfulness and accuracy of the content related to quality. For food labels that pass, the wordings "examined and certified pass" will be marked on the inspection certificate issued.
4. Label management
All inspection and quarantine departments across the Mainland will implement a filing system for the labelling of food imported for the first time into the areas under their respective jurisdiction and found to pass after inspection. The specimen, photo or scanned copy of the label will be filed for examination in future if necessary. When the food concerned is imported again using the same label, the inspection and quarantine department does not need to check the format of the label again.