Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Cambodia burns Indian buffalo meat allegedly infected with COVID-19

Strips of buffalo meat dry in front of a restaurant along a street in Phnom Penh, July 27. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Strips of buffalo meat dry in front of a restaurant along a street in Phnom Penh, July 27. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Authorities in Kampong Speu province have burned three containers worth of frozen buffalo meat imported from India that allegedly tested positive for COVID-19, despite a request from the Indian embassy requesting that the meat be retested. The Indian embassy in Phnom Penh maintains that there is no scientific evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through frozen food.

According to Kampong Speu provincial governor Vei Samnang, though, the time for testing has passed.

“We have already burned it all this morning,” he said. Samnang told reporters that he did not know exactly how many tonnes of meat had been in the containers. Government officials contacted by CamboJA declined to comment on why the meat had been tested in the first place.

The containers left India in April 2021 and arrived in Cambodia in July. In a statement on July 19, Health Ministry director general Hok Kim Cheng said that some of the meat had tested positive for COVID-19.

“Three of out five containers of frozen buffalo meat imported from India by Bovini Food Co.,ltd and Ashary Investment & Construction tested positive for SARS-CoV-2,” the statement read. 

The Indian embassy in Phnom Penh challenged the results, requesting that fresh samples from the same containers be retested to confirm the results — in an advanced “lab in Singapore”, if possible. If that were not possible, they said, the exporters had expressed their willingness to ship the containers back to India at their own expense.

“There is no scientific evidence to prove that COVID-19 virus can survive on food and food packaging material for a period of almost three months,” the embassy said in a statement. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness transmitted primarily through person-to-person contact.

The embassy said that the two Indian exporters have since had the remaining stored samples tested in ISO 17025-accredited labs in India, and that they were all found to be negative for the virus.

“All available information suggests that it is absolutely not possible for the virus to transfer through frozen food,” the statement said.

While the embassy said that they did take up the matter through a diplomatic note to the Ministry of Health and General Department of Customs & Excise, they told CamboJA that they had received no response from the government. They added that until now, no other country in the world has ever reported finding COVID-19 in frozen food or its packaging.

Hean Vanhorn, secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries,  maintained that the frozen goods had been confiscated after thorough testing out of concern for the potential impact on public health.

“This is what we can catch inside Cambodia,” he said. “How about the others that aren’t caught?”

“I do not talk about the viral infection, but I just raised that issue to avoid challenges being issued in the future,” Vanhorn said. He referred further questions to the General Department of Customs and Excise.

General Department of Customs and Excise deputy director Kun Nhim could not be reached for comment. Health Ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine declined to comment on the case.