China relationship is still strong - MPI boss

By Nigel Stirling

The departing director is upbeat about his ministry's role despite testing times writes Nigel Stirling

Food-safety sensitive China is ultra-cautious about baby formula in the wake of scandals.
Food-safety sensitive China is ultra-cautious about baby formula in the wake of scandals.

Appropriately enough one of the last acts of Wayne McNee as director-general of the Ministry for Primary Industries is a trip to China.

McNee admits the ministry has tested its relationship with its Chinese counterpart in recent months.

Failure to front up straight away after finding the toxic substance dicyandiamide (DCD) in milk products last year was followed several months later by New Zealand meat being blocked from Chinese ports because of confusion over accompanying documentation.

NZ meat companies also continue to face delays in getting licences for plants to export to China from the Beijing-based regulator, AQSIQ.

McNee commissioned a report on the meat documentation fiasco which is due to be released shortly.

He admits more thought could have been put into how and when it informed food safety-sensitive China that non-harmful levels of DCD had been found in NZ milk products.

McNee says the first priority was to assess whether the DCD residues posed a risk to human health.

Only then did the ministry believe it was in a position to inform customers and foreign regulators several months later.

"One of the learnings will be get the information out there more quickly once you have ascertained whether there is a risk or not. But you need to understand that risk first," McNee says.

A report for the State Services Commission earlier this year called on the ministry to "think harder about how it uses its regulatory and other interventions" to help achieve the Government's goal of doubling primary exports by 2025.

"For example, the ministry's regulatory and enforcement role means it is well placed to provide assurance to consumers that products are what they claim to be," it said.

McNee acknowledges the role of regulators is being reshaped after the discovery of horsemeat in Europe's beef supply chains earlier this year.

At about the same time hundreds were being arrested in China for "meat-related offences" including one criminal gang making vast profits passing off mink, fox and even rat meat as mutton.

"We are bound to find other things in product that is not a food safety risk but they will raise questions of what they are calling now food integrity.

"There is definitely more risk on how governments and industries communicate with consumers in those sorts of situations," McNee says.

But is the ministry heeding these messages?

A register of infant formula brands being produced in NZ and sold in China was only recently announced after a Chinese diplomat called for more transparency.

Media reports for months have highlighted the risks from bogus operators taking cover under the explosion in the number of NZ brands now in the Chinese market.

McNee denies the delay is evidence MPI isn't getting to grips with its responsibility to be more than just a food safety policeman.

He says MPI had been working with the regulator in Beijing for some time before the announcement of the brand register.

"We are as worried as the Chinese authorities are about reputation.

"We want to make sure that product that is being sold as NZ product genuinely is."

McNee is confident MPI retains a "very good" relationship with its Chinese counterpart. He doesn't believe fallout from the DCD affair contributed to the blockade on NZ meat.

But is MPI taking its relationship with AQSIQ for granted?

Could it be making better progress on meat plant registrations or find itself less flustered by developments in the booming Chinese infant formula market if it had more feet on the ground?

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NZ Trade and Enterprise have 130 people in China. MPI has one. That's out of a payroll of 2000.

McNee says MPI's lone representative in Beijing will at some point be joined by a policy specialist. A third person of a more technical bent could also soon follow.

He says MPI, with MFAT and NZTE, is reassessing its deployment in Asia and the Middle East.

"Those parts of the world are becoming more important from a trade perspective and we need to have another look at whether we are adequately resourcing them."

McNee is bailing out half-way through his five-year term to head up the dairy genetics company, LIC.

He worries the recent hiccups in the trading relationship with China could obscure worthwhile achievements at MPI under his watch, in particular new collaboration with primary industries to identify the biosecurity risks of greatest concern.

These Government Industry Agreements were fast-tracked after a report found better communication between MPI and the kiwifruit industry may have prevented PSA cutting a swathe through the nation's vines.

Tellingly though asked to name the biggest challenge for his successor at the helm of this sprawling organisation, McNee comes back to a familiar theme. "The way our exports are changing, and understanding what the implications are ... a tenfold increase in meat exports to China in two years is a huge change."

- NZ Herald

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