Officials trying to clear up China’s seafood concerns after ban on two companies

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Trade officials are racing against the clock after China suspended imports from two New Zealand seafood processing facilities over Covid-19 hygiene food safety fears.

A Sealord fishing boat at sea.

A Sealord fishing boat at sea.
Photo: RNZ / Alison Hossain

A Sanford mussel plant in Havelock and a Sealord facility in Nelson are affected.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) said the decision was based on the Chinese interpretation of World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 guidance, and food safety management.

The routine audit of the factories was done in late January. MPI deputy director-general of policy and trade Julie Collins said it was normal for issues to come up as a result.

“They raised a range of concerns relating to food safety and Covid controls and we’ve gone back to China customs to work through in more detail what those issues are so we can resolve the issues for those companies.”

She said officials were working as fast as possible with their Beijing counterparts to resolve the problems before China essentially shuts down in just days for the Lunar New Year celebrations.

New Zealand former trade commissioner to China Pat English said relations between the two countries were strong.

“The overall relationship between New Zealand [and] China is in good heart,” English said.

“It’s well positioned and it’s continuing as we would both hope and expect.”

English said a possible factor behind the move could be that other countries view New Zealand’s Covid-19 management systems as being lax, due to a lack of community transmission.

“That could be part of the perception that relative to many other parts in the world, New Zealand has Covid reasonably well contained.

“And so a lot of our day-to-day activities reflect more of a normal life than a Covid one.”

Collins said officials would be explaining New Zealand’s Covid-19 systems to their Beijing counterparts.

“As part of those discussions, we work through New Zealand’s Covid status – that we’re Covid-free at the moment and we have an elimination strategy.

“That we’ve got a risk-based alert system where, as we go up the levels, our food companies undertake further controls.”

Australia has been hit with import restrictions by the second biggest economy over its increasingly critical stance towards China on a range of issues.

International Business Forum executive director Stephen Jacobi said he did not believe these latest restrictions were China trying to punish New Zealand for its close ties with Australia.

“You just have to look at what we’ve been able to achieve with China just recently,” he said.

“We’ve signed an upgrade to our FTA, we’ve also concluded the RCEP trade agreement – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that involves China.

“I think all of these things tend to point to a very good and functioning relationship.”

Electorate MP for Marlborough Stuart Smith said the ban needed to be sorted out fast.

“This kind of disruption, particularly for food products, is extremely worrying and there’s a lot of people’s livelihoods hanging in the balance at the moment.

“I just hope that everybody who has a part to play in this does their bit as quickly and as efficiently as possible.”

Both companies declined to be interviewed but said the ban was not hurting their businesses.

Sealord said it has strict Covid-19 hygiene practices in place and followed China’s specific Covid-19 food safety requirements.

It said it has passed all previous Chinese audits and had won an industry award for its Covid-19 safety and hygiene measures.

Sanford said it operated it facilities to the highest standards of food safety.

MPI said the World Health Organisation’s guidance was that it was highly unlikely Covid-19 would be spread by food or food packaging.

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