The Food & Grocery Council says changes to the way the Government has handled boundary travel exemptions under the second round of lockdown had caused major disruption to food manufacturing.
Some food producers have been unable to get some of their key workers in and out of their factories located both in and outside of Auckland under alert level 3, resulting in some companies having to scale back production of some of their goods.
Griffin's Foods is said to be one of a handful of companies that have scaled back production of some of their lines due to being unable to get some staff into their facilities and Invivo Wines has faced similar issues getting workers from Auckland into its Waikato winery.
New Zealand Food & Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich said disruption caused by strict boundary protocol had become severe and New Zealand faced the prospect of multiple food shortages if level 3 was to continue after Monday.
Businesses had been squeezed by the restrictions - all areas of food manufacturing had been impacted, including pork and chicken farmers, bread manufacturers, yeast producers, flour millers, snack food companies and even winemakers, she said.
Under lockdown level 4 in March, all food workers critical to maintaining the food supply in New Zealand were deemed to be essential. These workers had a letter explaining they were essential and were able to travel to and from work without issues.
This time around under Auckland's alert level 3, Rich said Police had been turning workers away at the boundaries due to a change in management process - controlled by the Ministry of Health (MoH).
"The system being run by the Ministry of Health is not to exempt categories of workers but to force the approval of individual workers one by one", Rich told the Herald.
Under alert level 3 and 4 earlier in the year, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) were responsible for what was deemed an essential service or business.
A spokesman for MBIE confirmed to the Herald that the MoH was in charge of issuing worker boundary travel exemptions.
The blanket essential industry and business category system previously used had been abolished, he said.
Questions have been raised about why the Ministry of Health - with no background in industry and business endeavours - has been making the calls on what types of workers from what businesses and industries are able to travel in and out of the Auckland boundary.
"This time under lockdown [level] 3, many of our essential workers who work in food factories could not travel and these were the people that were able to travel safely during stricter level 4 lockdown," Rich told the Herald.
She said the industry association had to explain, on multiple occasions, to the MoH why a flour miller had to go to work to mill flour, why bread makers and yeast makers had to get to work, why farm workers need to be on-site when chicks were hatching, why winemakers needed to go to the vines and why biscuit makers and potato farmers had to get to work.
"Our members worked extremely hard to maintain supply - facing immense demand during the first lockdown, but this latest lockdown has been much harder for them," said Rich.
"This time under level 3, many of those workers have been barred from travel and in doing so there has been no additional safety benefit; these people travelled safely under more severe lockdowns."
Auckland is supposed to move out of alert level 3 and into level 2 at midnight on Sunday. But doubts have been cast on whether restrictions will be eased as more cases unlinked to the major cluster arise.
Rich fears this system would continue to be used if restrictions are tightened again.
"If we're going to yo-yo in and out of lockdowns we cannot have the Ministry of Health handling travel exemptions for critical food workers one by one."
She said she believed the MoH had underestimated how many exemptions to travel in and outside the Auckland border it would receive.
As of August 26, the Ministry had received more than 11,400 applications for exemptions.
The industry had come close to having extreme animal welfare issues as a result of the individual exemption process, she said, including a hatchery which struggled to get staff on-site at the time of mass hatching.
"The food industry can't continue like this. We're being expected to produce food to go out to generate revenue and feed New Zealanders and in every way we're being foot-tripped.
"They should have never changed the system - it's been a disaster."
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said it was processing a large volume of applications which were "being triaged and then processed taking into account urgency and complexity".
"The Ministry is ensuring each individual case is carefully considered and is responding as quickly as possible, and in some urgent cases, within the same day. The exemptions inbox is now being triaged in real time – this means as applications come in, they are immediately being assigned to teams set up to assess applications," the spokesperson said in a statement.
Decisions on regional boundary travel exemptions were made by the director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield, the spokesperson said: "This is different to the settings in alert level 4 that necessitated consideration of essential workers or essential services," the spokesperson said.
So far more than 2100 exemptions have been approved.
The MoH estimates that 10 per cent of people applying were already permitted to travel through the Auckland border and did not need an exemption.
"Regional boundary restrictions are a key part of our public health response to help contain the possible spread of Covid-19.
"The Covid-19 Public Health Response (Alert Levels 3 and 2) (No. 2) Order prohibits inter-regional travel between those regions with different alert levels, with limited permissible travel set out. Clause 34 of the order gives the power for the director-general of health to grant exemptions from the restrictions in the order if: the exemption is necessary or desirable in order to promote the purposes of the Act or the purposes of the order; and the extent of the exemption is not broader than is reasonably necessary to address the matters that gave rise to the exemption."
Vincent Arbuckle, MPI deputy director-general of compliance and governance, said MPI had supported the primary sector throughout the Covid-19 response.
MPI had "worked with the MoH to secure class exemptions to enable safe travel across the Auckland border, where essential, for key workers, Arbuckle said.
He said exemptions had been approved for: flour millers, vets, red meat processors, sheep and beef farmers to attend to livestock, Apiculture NZ, workers of dairy infrastructure projects and those of a paper bag supplier essential to keep food supply chains moving.