China’s audit of apple export sites over, now we wait as seafood halts continue

A round of new Chinese government food safety audits which have spooked New Zealand’s economic lifeblood primary export sectors have been completed on apple exporters with formal findings expected within a few weeks.

The video, or live, audits on processing operations approved to export food to China have already resulted in some seafood exports being halted by Chinese officials. The February suspensions of some Sanford and Sealord products are still in force and unresolved.

The Meat Industry Association which represents companies in the $9 billion export meat industry last week expressed “nervousness” about the audits amid uncertainty over China’srules and requirements.

The Ministry for Primary Industries, which is handling the seafood suspension issue with Chinese officials, alerted the meat and dairy export sectors to the audits earlier this year.

Ministry director market access Steve Ainsworth said six apple export operations were audited – a mix of orchards and packhouses in the Hawke’s Bay and Tasman regions.

“We expect to receive the formal findings from the audit within the next month.”

Pipfruit industry advocate NZ Apples and Pears chief executive Alan Pollard declined to comment until the audit results are in.

The export apple and pear sector earned just over $900 million last year. China is its third biggest market.

MPI has played down the audits, with Ainsworth last week saying “they’re part of the normal interactions between the regulators of different countries and include providing assurances the systems used to produce and export food products are robust”.

For three months the ministry’s only statement when asked about the ongoing suspensions is that it is engaging with Chinese officials.

But sectors are on edge.

“There’s a lot of nervousness,”Meat Industry Association (MIA) chief executive Sirma Karapeeva has told the Herald.

“The structure of the audits is quite different to what we are used to and it’s caused a lot of nervousness. We are all looking at what is going on with the seafood exports, and now apples.”

A major primary sector participant who spoke on condition of anonymity said all primary industry companies with approvals to export to China were “nervous”.

“These (audits) could mark a change of direction, higher standards etc and there’s little advance clarity what China expects … you could be delisted for not meeting a rule or standard that you didn’t know existed.”

“There are lots of inconsistent messages from Chinese customers, different port authorities, regulators of what’s required. Dairy, meat, seafood, horticulture are all in the same basket.”

The Herald revealed in early February that some exports from the two major New Zealand seafood companies had been suspended by China due to what the Ministry for Primary Industries called “issues around the interpretation of the World Health Organisation’s Covid guidance and food safety management”.

The facilities are a Sanford company site in Havelock that processes mussels and a Sealord site in Nelson that processes finfish and fishmeal for animal feeds.

MPI’s response to a Herald Official Information Act request – while heavily redacted – suggests the issue boils down to China wanting New Zealand food exporters to practice China’s domestic Covid measures – regardless of New Zealand’s Covid status.

Then there’s the matter of China’s interpretation of World Health Organisation Covid guidelines.

“China advised New Zealand on February 8 that the suspension was due to a combination of food safety systems and non-compliance with China’s interpretation of World Health Organisation Covid-19 guidelines,” OIA documents noted.

MPI’s Ainsworth has said due to Covid-19 many audits were now being conducted by video rather than in person.

“A key focus for MPI is supporting Chinese authorities to understand the effectiveness of our systems, including our strong Covid-19 measures.

“In line with our usual process, we’re in regular contact with our food manufacturers and exporters to keep them up to date on our trading partners’ food safety, Covid-19, and other requirements.”

New Zealand and China in January upgraded their free trade agreement for at least another 10 years.

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