Zespri has put 1.7 million trays of export kiwifruit on hold after traces of mechanical lubricant were found on some plastic tray liners, sparking concerns some fruit could be at risk of contamination.
The contaminant on the Chinese-manufactured liners was spotted during the kiwifruit packing process and forced the unloading of a ship docked at the Port of Tauranga.
"We have put a 100 per cent hold on the product potentially at risk," Zespri's chief operating officer Simon Limmer told the Bay of Plenty Times.
The problem was limited to the "pocket pack" liners that went into single-layer trays. And because only some of these liners came out of the Chinese factory and not all of those had been affected, he estimated that only one in every 8000 of the 1.7 million trays were potentially at risk. Mr Limmer said Zespri had contained the problem and identified the four other ships already on the water that had suspect trays. "All the trays will be put on hold. They won't enter the distribution chain."
Kiwifruit packhouses were responsible for ordering their own tray liners and he said a good proportion had been using the Chinese liners, with other liners sourced from elsewhere.
Zespri became aware of the problem on Monday and had been working flat out since then. Laboratories have been analysing the lubricant and results were expected in the next couple of days.
In a statement released today, Zespri said it had the affected kiwifruit had been put on hold while it investigates further. The fruit was still within Zespri's distribution system so none is available to the public. The affected 1.7 million trays represents about one per cent of around one percent of Zespri's total forecast volume for 2016.
"While there may be some delay to customer deliveries in some markets, Zespri does not anticipate these actions having a material impact on the 2016 season," the growers' organisation said.
Mr Limmer said all fruit that had come in contact with the lubricant would be destroyed regardless of laboratory findings.
"We are pleased that the traceability process worked here."
He said the lubricant had been the result of some sort of mechanical leak in the liner manufacturing process. "Some trays have small deposits of mechanical grease."
Repacking was a possibility if they were able to remove the contaminated trays.
Decisions partly relied on the analysis of the composition of the lubricant.
Thirty per cent of the gold crop exported so far this season had been packed in the single-layer trays. The green crop was still on the vine because of the warm autumn.
Mr Limmer said it was the first time to his knowledge that kiwifruit had come into contact with a lubricant in this way. "If fruit came in contact with this product we would be dumping it."
He did not anticipate any repercussions in export markets. "We got our hands around the problem quickly and successfully."
There would not be a huge amount of disruption in packhouses because they were able to pack into alternative liners, he said.
Three of the ships on the water heading to markets in China and Taiwan had relatively small volumes of kiwifruit, with the Star Prima heading to Japan holding the bulk of the product identified as being at risk from contamination.
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers' Association chairman Doug Brown said it was disappointing but the incident demonstrated the industry's commitment to food safety and brand integrity.
"The industry is geared up and fully capable of providing insurance around food safety. The response so far has been really good. The at-risk product has been identified and segregated."
From a growers' perspective Mr Brown said there was a real concern it could affect the market but he was hopeful the market would accept the corrective action.
"I think Zespri would hope they can maintain customer confidence so hopefully business continues as usual."
The Bay of Plenty Times was alerted to the problem when a news team spotted the unusual sight of pallets of kiwifruit cartons being unloaded from the Ice Glacier yesterday at a time of the year when the kiwifruit harvest was getting into full swing.
Port of Tauranga's schedule for the Ice Glacier indicated problems. It arrived at 1.10pm on Monday and was due to depart at 9.45pm today - a visit of four days. This was nearly three times longer than the usual length of time ships berthed.