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Importers of higher-risk food need better monitoring, says Auditor-General

The Ministry for Primary Industries (the Ministry) needs to strengthen its monitoring of food importers and its understanding of the effectiveness of import requirements, says the Auditor-General in a new report.

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

The Auditor-General’s work examined how well the Ministry was monitoring importers of a group of foods that present a greater risk to consumers. Some of these specified high-risk foods, including frozen berries and tahini, have been associated with food recalls and outbreaks of foodborne illness in New Zealand.

“Consumers expect the food they buy to be safe, and the amount of food we import is steadily increasing,” says Auditor-General John Ryan.

“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.

“In my view, the Ministry does not have a clear understanding of the effectiveness of the food import system. This is because the Ministry has not been consistently monitoring whether importers are assessing the safety and suitability of specified high-risk foods before they arrive in the country.

“The Ministry also does not collect all the information it needs to assess the effectiveness of the requirements for importing food.

“The Ministry is aware of these issues and has made some improvements,” says Mr Ryan.

“But more improvements are needed so the Ministry 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.”

The Ministry agrees with the report’s findings. Since 2021, the Ministry has been working on proposals to strengthen the food safety system, including more monitoring of importers and imported food. This month, the Ministry has begun public consultation on two proposed levies, including a food importer levy to support increased monitoring.

“This is positive progress for a system that has not been well monitored in the past,” says Mr Ryan.

“However, the Ministry also needs to do more with the information it already collects to build and maintain a better understanding of importers’ compliance with food import requirements and the effectiveness of those requirements.”

The report makes three recommendations to support the Ministry’s work on a more effective food import system.

 

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