Auditor-General's overview

Monitoring importers of specified high-risk foods.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

New Zealand imports food from many countries. Some imported foods have been associated with food recalls and outbreaks of foodborne illness in New Zealand.

New Zealanders expect the food they buy to be safe. An effective food safety system is important to protect public health. The Food Act 2014 makes importers responsible for ensuring that the food they bring into the country is safe and suitable for consumption. The Ministry for Primary Industries (the Ministry) is responsible for monitoring whether importers are meeting their responsibilities and that importing requirements are working effectively.

New Zealand's food import system relies on a level of trust that importers are assessing the safety and suitability 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.

I wanted to know how well the Ministry was monitoring importers of foods that present a greater risk to consumers (specified high-risk foods). These foods account for less than 4% of all imported food (by weight).

Importers and importing requirements have not been monitored effectively

In my view, the Ministry does not have a clear understanding of the effectiveness of the food import system. This is because the Ministry is not 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 food importing requirements. Until recently, some aspects of the system (such as importer registration) were poorly monitored.

The Ministry is aware of these issues. In recent years, the Ministry has made improvements, including checking that importers are registered and arranging for food to be tested on arrival to New Zealand in a timely way. It has also improved how it understands and acts on emerging food safety risks. The Ministry has increased checks on the importers of some specified high-risk foods.

However, more improvement is 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 currently being managed reactively. This means that, in some cases, action is only taken after people have fallen ill.

Improvements are under way

The Ministry told us it agrees with our findings. Since 2021, the Ministry has been working on proposals to strengthen the food safety system, including more monitoring of importers and of imported food. As we finalised this report, the Ministry commenced public consultation on two proposed levies, including a food importer levy to support increased monitoring.

This is positive progress on a system that has not been well monitored in the past. However, in my view, the Ministry also needs to do more with the information it already collects to build and maintain its understanding of importers' compliance with food importing requirements, as well as the effectiveness of those requirements. The Ministry could also do more to ensure that importers of specified high-risk foods are aware of their responsibilities.

I have made three recommendations in this report to support a more effective food import system.


This audit is the first of our rapid performance audits, which requires agencies to work with my audit team to tight time frames. I acknowledge Ministry staff for their constructive engagement with this work. I look forward to seeing improvements in this important area.

Nāku noa, nā

John Ryan Controller and Auditor-General | Tumuaki o te Mana Arotake

9 February 2024