The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has been told by auditors to improve its oversight of food importers.

The Auditor-General in New Zealand examined how well the MPI was monitoring importers of foods that pose a greater risk to consumers. Some of these high-risk foods, including frozen berries and tahini, have caused recalls and outbreaks in the country. In 2022 and 2023, 39 people were infected with Hepatitis A attributed to frozen berries from Serbia.

Under the Food Act 2014, importers are responsible for ensuring that food they bring into the country is safe. The MPI is responsible for monitoring whether importers are meeting their responsibilities and that import requirements are working effectively.

A lack of clear understanding
In early 2024, there were more than 3,700 registered food importers in the country. Of 60 consumer-level recalls in 2022, 27 were for imported food. This was an increase on previous years. 2020 data shows New Zealand imports food from 218 countries.

John Ryan, auditor general, said the amount of food sent to New Zealand was steadily increasing.

“New Zealand’s food import system relies on a level of trust that importers are assessing the safety of food that will be sold to the public. As with any system involving trust, checks are needed to ensure that importers are meeting their responsibilities,” he said.

“In my view, MPI does not have a clear understanding of the effectiveness of the food import system. This is because MPI has not been consistently monitoring whether importers are assessing the safety and suitability of specified high-risk foods before they arrive in the country. MPI also does not collect all the information it needs to assess the effectiveness of the requirements for importing food.”

Recent investigations into food safety events found that some firms were unaware of importing requirements. Importers had limited information about suppliers that manufactured the food, how hazards associated with the products were controlled, and traceability.

Areas to improve
Three recommendations were made including taking a more proactive approach to identify non-compliance by regularly collating and evaluating information about importers and imported food. The second area was improving understanding of the information importers need to improve compliance. The third mentioned ensuring access to the information needed to detect food safety risks earlier, better understand them, and respond more effectively.

The MPI is working on proposals to strengthen the system, including more monitoring of importers and imported food. The agency recently launched a public consultation on two proposed levies, including a food importer levy to support increased monitoring.

MPI staff spoken to felt that more verification of importers was necessary. They highlighted the lack of monitoring programs as a factor that prevented more verification from happening.

Ryan said the MPI was aware of the issues and there had been progress in some areas.

“But more improvements are needed so MPI can respond to a food import market that is subject to changing food trends and risks. The risks from some imported foods are being managed reactively. This means that, in some cases, action is only taken after people have fallen ill.”

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