Zespri growers will 'wear cost'

By Joseph Aldridge

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Kiwifruit exporter Zespri has appealed against the conviction of its Chinese subsidiary for smuggling and the growers' association is undertaking an investigation - but neither action will satisfy disappointed growers, a Tauranga lawyer says.

Marcus Wilkins is a spokesman for the Independent Kiwifruit Growers Association, a splinter group of growers who feel dissatisfied with the way their interests are represented by New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc (NZKGI).

Independent growers had little faith in the inquiry launched by NZKGI into the case, Mr Wilkins said.

Zespri's Chinese subsidiary was last month found guilty of being an accessory to the underpayment of customs duties by its importer.

The company was fined $1 million and the court ruled up to $10 million in illegal gains should also be repaid.

Growers, already struggling with the impact of Psa, would end up wearing the cost, Mr Wilkins said.

"This is growers' money that's being dealt with, it's the growers who have funded the Zespri brand, it's the growers who are going to end up paying the fine. They're the ones that need the answers and I don't think that is going to come from a KGI inquiry."

The NZKGI inquiry was neither independent nor broad enough to return a satisfactory result, Mr Wilkins said.

Unless KGI was given full access to the records of Zespri's audit and risk management committee, and a copy of the report written by Zespri's law firm in Hong Kong, the inquiry would fail to answer the fundamental questions, he said.

A Zespri spokesman last week told the Bay of Plenty Times the company would be appealing the Chinese court decision.

"Zespri will not comment further on this matter so as not to prejudice the appeals of both ZMCC and its employee," the spokesman said.

NZKGI president Neil Trebilco said the question of whether the inquiry was independent enough was a moot point.

"We are focused on Zespri's activities because this is how New Zealand kiwifruit growers make the majority of their money. To survive and prosper financially, we need Zespri to perform to its best possible standard. Be assured that every effort will be made in making sure the inquiry does what it has been set up to do.

"For NZKGI, it is necessary to understand what happened and what effect that will have on our future trade with China and our brand."

Mr Trebilco also rebuffed the charge that the inquiry was not broad enough.

"Zespri has agreed to co-operate with our inquiry and we are in the process of obtaining the necessary documents.

"If necessary, this process will be repeated until all avenues of inquiry have been covered," he said.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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