By Hugh Bronstein and Maximilian Heath
BUENOS AIRES, July 15 (Reuters) - Argentina has suspended exports to China from eight meatpacking plants after cases of the novel coronavirus were found among their employees, Argentina's food quality and safety body, Senasa, said on Wednesday.
China, the main destination for the South American country's beef, has been clamping down on meat imports amid concerns about infections of COVID-19, which is gripping countries around the region, including key food producers Argentina and Brazil.
Senasa spokesman Rodrigo Conti updated the number of plants suspended from shipping to China to eight after Senasa chief Carlos Alberto Paz said earlier in the day it had been six plants that were temporarily blocked from shipping to China.
The export suspensions come after Beijing asked the Argentine government to offer commercial security guarantees amid the pandemic.
"As soon as factories are in a position to re-export, we will give them the go-ahead once again," Paz said.
According to Argentina's Aariculture Ministry, 76% of the 328,170 tonnes of bovine meat shipped from the country between January and May were destined for China. In 2019, Argentina exported nearly 634,000 tonnes of beef to China.
"They (China) asked us what guarantees we could give them so that they would have security with the products they import and we gave them those guarantees," Paz added.
The eight suspensions leave Argentina with 88 meatpacking plants currently authorized to export to China.
Argentina has 106,910 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with almost 2,000 deaths. The vast majority of cases have been in and around the capital, Buenos Aires, where many of the country's meatpacking plants are located.
Argentina's urban centers have been under lockdown against the coronavirus since March 20. The economy is expected to shrink 12% this year, according to private analysts.
(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein and Maximilian Heath; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Richard Chang and Peter Cooney)
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