Canada said Wednesday it is investigating the origin of a tainted pork shipment and bogus documents that prompted China to ban Canadian meat and further strained tense relations.
"We're now in the process of investigating the source of these certificates," Trade Minister Jim Carr told reporters in Toronto.
He added that Canadian officials were cooperating with their Chinese counterparts, but were waiting for "proof that there is something wrong with the product and that it originated from Canada."
China asked Canada on Tuesday to suspend all meat exports after uncovering 188 false veterinary health certificates attached to a batch of pork -- raising concern among livestock breeders.
The forgery allegations leveled against Frigo Royal Inc. came amid after relations between the two nations were strained by Canada's arrest of a senior Chinese telecoms executive and China's detention of two Canadian nationals in apparent retaliation.
Earlier this month, the official Xinhua news agency said customs officials in the eastern city of Nanjing had found ractopamine in the Canadian company's recent pork shipments.
The feed additive, which boosts the growth of animals, is widely used in the United States but banned in the European Union and China.
"They're inauthentic certificates that are at play here and we're taking it very seriously," Carr said. "Somebody is trying to use the Canadian brand to move product into the Chinese market."
Federal police have been called in to investigate the case. Carr said authorities were "working very hard to get to the bottom of it."
Diplomatic and trade relations between Canada and China soured following the December arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition request related to alleged Iran sanctions violations.
In moves widely seen as retaliation, China detained two Canadians for alleged espionage, blocked Canadian canola shipments worth billions of dollars and, most recently, increased inspections of other Canadian agricultural imports.
- Escalating diplomatic row -
Asked if the meat ban was an escalation in response to Meng's case, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday that ensuring food safety is the responsibility of the government and that Chinese authorities acted in accordance with the law.
Carr commented that the pork matter was being treated as a "technical issue" by both Ottawa and Beijing.
"There's no tie (to Meng case) that has been explicitly made by anybody," he said. "No one is looking to escalate or exacerbate tensions."
But several experts interviewed by Canadian media said the move marked an escalation in the diplomatic row.
Dalhousie University professor Sylvain Charlebois said China's actions were having a major impact on the whole of Canada's agricultural industry.
"Of course, the Canadian government cannot say for sure that there is a link between what's going on with China and the Meng Wanzhou case," he told public broadcaster CBC.
"But I can say that many analysts are saying it: there is a link."
China is Canada's third-largest market for pork, with 13 percent of its total exports worth Can$514 million shipped there last year.
Pork producers have raised alarms over China's latest move, as has the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, which said in a statement: "It is unclear why beef products have been included in this suspension."
Earlier Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boarded a plane to Japan for a G20 summit, where at Trudeau's behest US President Donald Trump is expected to raise the "arbitrary" detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The Canadian leader personally reached out to Xi in January to try to head off the current crisis, but was rebuffed.