Beijing slaps ban on all British cheese

File photo / Thinkstock
File photo / Thinkstock

China has banned all imports of British cheese after its inspectors condemned hygiene standards at just one UK dairy.

The ban, imposed three days ago, has sparked outrage and one MP has demanded 'tit for tat' retaliation against Chinese food imports.

The cheese factory has not been identified but The Mail on Sunday has learned it does not even export cheese to China.

There is no evidence the factory broke any British regulations and last night George Eustice, Farming Minister, said China's ban was "disappointing".

Andrew Percy, Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole, who is secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Cheese Group, said: "We have some of the highest food production standards in the world as well as the world's finest cheeses.

"It seems to me this is a complete over-reaction and a disproportionate response especially as the plant involved does not even export cheese to China.

"This matter needs to be resolved quickly and if it is not we should look at the possibility of some retaliatory action."

He added: "Attacking the British cheese industry is like us attacking the Chinese noodle industry and on the basis of just one visit to a British dairy producer I think it's offensive."

Chinese inspectors were in Britain in March and asked to visit a cheese factory.

This was arranged by officials at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and industry body Dairy UK, which assumed it was a general visit.

But on arrival at the plant, the Chinese conducted a full-blown audit and then suspended all UK cheese imports from May 1.

The Chinese inspection report has not been published, but DairyCo, which works on behalf of Britain's dairy farmers, has said the Chinese were concerned about maintenance of equipment, air sanitation, temperatures of raw milk during transportation and chemical storage.

Government and industry sources insist the issues were minor and posed no threat to public health. But the ban will remain until the eight UK plants that export cheese to China have been checked for compliance.

Environmental health officers are now inspecting these dairies on behalf of the Food Standards Agency in the hope of persuading China to lift the ban.

The watchdog has also asked officers to visit the plant that sparked the cheese ban to ensure any shortcomings are addressed.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who has visited China twice in the past 18 months to drum up new exports for food and drink companies, has asked officials to discover what went wrong.

A Whitehall source said: "Everything is being gone through with a fine-tooth comb to ensure it doesn't happen again."

What is particularly galling for Britain is that Irish factories inspected by the Chinese in April have been approved to export cheese. Farming and industry figures fear the Irish are now better placed to win new Chinese orders.

While the Chinese market is tiny for the UK, the ban has coincided with a sharp increase in demand this year. Export figures for January and February alone are already valued at £93,003.

The Chinese government bodies responsible for the ban - the State Administration of Quality Supervision and the National Certification and Accreditation Administration Committee - did not respond to requests for comment from The Mail on Sunday yesterday.

- Mail On Sunday

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