Part 3: The Ministry's monitoring of importers needs to improve

Monitoring importers of specified high-risk foods.

In this Part, we describe how the Ministry:

We expected that the Ministry would be monitoring how well importers are complying with requirements for specified high-risk foods at each stage of the importing process. We also expected the Ministry to have a process in place to assess the effectiveness of importing requirements.

Summary of findings

The Ministry has made improvements to how it monitors parts of the importing process. Before 2021, the Ministry was not checking that importers were registered. The Ministry was also not regularly checking that importers were organising sampling and testing of food (when necessary) or following up to ensure compliance when this was not happening. These are fundamental controls for importing food safely that were not being monitored.

The Ministry has addressed these issues. The Ministry has also reviewed the requirements for two types of specified high-risk food. These changes have addressed gaps that risked undermining the effectiveness of the food safety system.

The Ministry has also recently provided importers clearer guidance about the requirements that they must meet.

However, the Ministry is not routinely checking that importers of specified high-risk foods are complying with the general requirement to establish the safety and suitability of food before it arrives in New Zealand (see paragraph 2.4). This requirement involves importers assessing the safety and suitability of the food and maintaining records to show how they have done this.

Other food safety control measures established by the Food Act, and initiatives under way in the food industry, provide confidence that some importers are complying with those requirements. However, the Ministry does not have an up-to-date view on the extent to which importers are compliant.

The Ministry is also not routinely reviewing the effectiveness of the requirements for importing specified high-risk foods.

As a result, the Ministry largely relies on reactive systems designed to detect and respond to incidents related to unsafe food entering the country (such as a New Zealand food manufacturer detecting an issue with an imported ingredient).

The Ministry needs to prioritise work to bring together the information it collects about importers and imported food to help it to understand the effectiveness of the system for importing specified high-risk food.

The Ministry has improved how the food importing system works

The Ministry has processes to detect emerging food safety risks

The Ministry carries out work to understand and act on new food safety risks. In 2021, it established an emerging risks team to scan for new and changing food safety risks. It also has relationships with food safety agencies from other countries (for example, Australia and the United Kingdom) and shares information about food safety issues with them.

As a result of sharing information, food safety issues in other countries have at times resulted in food being removed from the New Zealand market. In such instances, the Ministry has taken a proactive approach by acting on a risk before it becomes an issue.

The Ministry ensures that only registered importers can bring food into the country

To be able to monitor importers' compliance with regulatory requirements, the Ministry needs to know who the importers are. As described in paragraph 2.4, the Food Act requires all importers of food for sale in New Zealand to be registered. Those seeking registration need to be deemed "a fit and proper person" and are required to pay a fee.

Registration lasts for 12 months and can be renewed. The Ministry can refuse to register an importer on certain grounds – for example, repeated failure to comply with food importing requirements.

In 2020, the Ministry carried out a review of the registration of importers of food for sale and found that many were not registered. In 2021, to address this problem, the Ministry reminded importers of the need to be registered. Border officials began using a new software system to identify unregistered importers when they lodge consignments of food for sale.

The Ministry now has an up-to-date database of registered food importers. Only registered importers can bring food into New Zealand for sale. If food arrives at the border and the importer is not registered, the food is held until the importer has completed registration.

There is now a process to follow up non-compliance with food sampling and testing

As described in paragraphs 2.26-2.28, importers can have their food tested to meet clearance requirements.

The Ministry's border clearance team recently implemented a new approach to monitor whether importers are organising sampling and testing within a specified time frame. Importers are allowed 30 days to organise food sampling and testing. If this does not occur, a food safety officer follows this up with the importer. If, in another 30 days, the food has still not been sampled and tested, the matter is referred to Food Compliance Services (a team within the Ministry) to investigate and potentially take enforcement action.

Before this approach was implemented, non-compliance was not being regularly followed up and there was a risk that untested food was entering the country. This gap in the system has now been addressed.

There is now clearer guidance about how to meet the food importing requirements

Importers need to understand food importing requirements to comply with them. The Ministry published the 2022 Food Notice to provide greater clarity about importers' obligations at all stages of the food importing process.

Although the Food Regulations 2015 required importers to establish the safety and suitability of the food they are importing, food notices published before 2022 did not explain what this should involve. Ministry staff told us this meant that importers were doing what they thought was necessary but were not sure they were fully complying.

Changes were made in the 2022 Food Notice to explain requirements more clearly and support greater importer compliance.

The 2023 Food Notice gives more detail on what is required to meet the safety and suitability requirements, including what importers need to do to ensure that food is transported and stored appropriately and what records must be kept.

The Ministry's website also has detailed information about what importers should be doing to meet the requirements that apply at all stages of the food import process.

The Ministry has assessed the effectiveness of food clearance requirements for some specified high-risk food

As part of a well-functioning food safety system, the requirements for importing specified high-risk food should be checked regularly to ensure that they are appropriate, clear, and working as intended.

The Ministry has reviewed the requirements for importing two specified high-risk food groups – bovine meat products and frozen berries. As a result of these reviews, the Ministry made changes to the requirements for these foods, including how these foods are managed at the border (see paragraph 3.56).

The Ministry needs to monitor importers at each stage of the importing process

No monitoring programmes have been established under the Food Act

The Food Act allows for monitoring programmes to be established. Among other things, the Act states that "monitoring programmes can be used for determining the safety and suitability of food" or for "ensuring the effectiveness of the food safety regime". Monitoring programmes can only be established on the recommendation of the responsible Minister.

The Ministry understands that monitoring programmes can help it to identify potential non-compliance with importing requirements. We were told that monitoring programmes could look at matters such as food fraud (where food is tested to ensure that it is what it claims to be) or how labelling regulations are complied with. The results could be used to identify the risks of particular foods or importers.

There are currently no monitoring programmes established under the Food Act. The Ministry has carried out other research and survey activity that provides information related to the safety and suitability of some imported food. However, these activities are limited in scope and frequency (see paragraph 3.68).

During our audit, the Ministry was working on proposals to establish and fund monitoring programmes and intended to seek Ministerial approval for them. As we finalised this report, the Ministry commenced public consultation on a food importer levy to fund this monitoring. In the meantime, the Ministry relies on other mechanisms available under the Food Act to monitor importers' compliance. We discuss these below.

Food control plans, national programmes, and food industry initiatives help manage the risks posed by some imported food

The Food Act categorises food businesses by the level of food safety risk they present to the public. The Act requires high-risk businesses to operate under a food control plan. Medium- and lower-risk businesses must follow a national programme.7

Food control plans and national programmes help food businesses ensure that the food they sell is safe and suitable. They require businesses to identify hazards related to the food and the processes required to control, manage, and eliminate or minimise them.

The Food Act excludes importing as a reason for requiring a business to operate under a food control plan or national programme. However, some registered importers also run a business, like food manufacturing or retail, that is required to operate under a food control plan or national programme.

The Ministry has done work that shows food control plans and national programmes help importers to comply with importing requirements. In 2018, the Ministry carried out a targeted study of a small group of importers. This study found that importers operating under a food control plan or national programme had better compliance with food importing requirements than those that did not.8

The Ministry's 2018 study also highlighted how private standards developed by some food businesses support importers to meet importing requirements. For example, a supermarket chain had its own approved supplier programme for importers. Importers that were part of the programme had better compliance with official importing requirements than other importers.

We spoke to an importer who told us that the supermarket he sold food to had clear and stringent requirements. These include clear and documented evidence that an importer had done all they could to confirm that the imported food was produced, handled, and stored in ways that make it safe and suitable.

There is limited use of verification powers

The Food Act allows the Ministry to require official checks on how well a business's practices, procedures, and activities comply with the applicable requirements of the Act. This is called verification. Food businesses pay fees to cover the cost of verification.

Importers operating under food control plans and national programmes are subject to routine verification of their operations, including how the safety of food is assessed and maintained. The Ministry's 2018 study found that this verification was happening.

Importers that do not operate under a food control plan or national programme are not automatically subject to verification. However, they can be subject to verification if there is evidence that the importer or the food they import is not meeting requirements. The Food Regulations 2015 list what the Ministry must consider when requiring the verification of importers' operations. These include:

  • any recalls of an imported food;
  • any contamination, or suspected contamination, by any hazard;
  • information that is reasonable grounds to suspect a food is not safe or suitable;
  • information that is reasonable grounds to suspect that an importer's operations do not comply with the requirements of the Food Act; and
  • any findings from monitoring, surveys, or auditing carried out by the Ministry that have implications for the safety and suitability of food.

There has been little verification of businesses that do not operate under food control plans or national programmes. However, a verification process for some of these importers was established in 2023. The Ministry plans to carry out verification for all importers of two specified high-risk foods that were the subject of recent investigations. This means that importers can be subject to verification because of known food safety issues with the type of product they import.

We spoke to Ministry staff who felt that more verification of importers was necessary. They highlighted the lack of monitoring programmes as a factor that prevented more verification from happening.

We were also told that the Ministry is not collating the information it collects about individual importers to assess risks related to importers more generally. Doing so could provide a basis for more widespread verification of importers.

Compliance checks do occur in response to food safety events

Checking importers' compliance with requirements for importing specified high-risk foods is often done in response to a food safety event.

Food safety events involving domestic or imported food might be related to chemical, physical, or biological hazards and can involve:

  • a New Zealand-based food manufacturer detecting contamination in an imported ingredient;
  • somebody finding foreign matter in food;
  • non-compliant labelling (for example, allergens not being listed);
  • non-compliant composition; or
  • food being linked to illness in the community.

The Ministry's Food Compliance Services investigates the likely cause of the identified hazard. This investigation includes assessing whether the importers involved have complied with all the relevant requirements. Depending on what an investigation finds, the Ministry might work with an importer to improve their compliance or take enforcement action through the courts. During our audit, we saw examples of recent enforcement action taken by the Ministry.

The Ministry could better use the information it collects to develop a more proactive approach to monitoring importers' compliance

In our view, the Ministry needs an approach that can detect potential risks with an imported food or importer and act before it becomes a food safety event. The Ministry told us it agrees. However, it said that this type of approach would require more resources.

As discussed in paragraph 3.30, the Ministry has begun public consultation on a food importer levy that will cover the costs of monitoring.

In our view, the Ministry could also use the information it currently collects about importers to determine if verification of more importers is appropriate. The Ministry collects information about importers' compliance with border clearance requirements, such as whether they have met testing requirements and the results of testing. Its verification work also produces insights into importers' knowledge of, and compliance with, importing requirements.

More could be done to bring this information together and build a picture of importers that are performing well and importers that are not. This would help the Ministry to be more proactive in managing some of the risks that specified high-risk foods present. In our view, the Ministry should prioritise this work.

Recommendation 1
We recommend that the Ministry for Primary Industries take a more proactive approach to identify non-compliance with requirements for importing specified high-risk foods by regularly collating and evaluating information about importers and imported food.

Educating importers could support higher levels of compliance

The Ministry needs to consider what more it can do to help importers understand the requirements for importing specified high-risk foods.

The Ministry's 2018 study noted that importers lacked understanding of food importing requirements. This was the case even for compliant importers. The study noted a level of "accidental compliance" among importers it looked at – some importers were unaware of certain requirements even though they were complying with them.

As discussed in paragraphs 3.23-3.24, we found that the 2023 Food Notice and the Ministry's website provide detailed information about importers' responsibilities. The Ministry told us that it is planning further improvements to the information on its website and is developing a newsletter for food importers.

The Ministry has a staff member available to answer queries from importers about the importing process and the rules that apply. Ministry staff also attend industry trade shows to help educate importers about their responsibilities.

However, despite these improvements, recent investigations into food safety events have found that some importers remain unaware of food importing requirements. Some importers have little understanding of their responsibility to ensure that the food they import is safe and suitable. The importers had limited information about the suppliers that manufactured the food, how hazards associated with the products were controlled, and traceability.

The Ministry should consider what other steps it can take to help importers understand their responsibilities (for example, whether enough information is available to importers about their responsibilities before they register or renew their registration).

Recommendation 2
We recommend that the Ministry for Primary Industries further improve its understanding of:
  • the information that importers need to improve their compliance with requirements for importing specified high-risk foods; and
  • the most effective way of informing importers.

The Ministry needs to collect the right information to assess whether controls are working

The effectiveness of requirements for most specified high-risk foods has not been reviewed

The Ministry has methods to review the effectiveness of import control measures for individual specified high-risk foods (see paragraph 2.15 for definitions). To date, the Ministry has reviewed two specified high-risk foods – bovine meat products and frozen berries – to ensure that the targeted requirements are appropriate and working effectively.

Bovine meat products are categorised as a high regulatory interest food because of the potential risk from the presence of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) agent in the products. Bovine meat products can only be imported from countries that have a BSE risk status acceptable to New Zealand. An official certificate showing this is required for clearance of consignments of bovine meat products.

In 2019, the Ministry initiated a review of importing requirements for bovine meat products. This review was in response to repeated non-compliance by importers and the challenges the Ministry had enforcing clearance requirements.

One of the main findings of the review was that it was not clear to importers what products were included or excluded from the definition of bovine meat products. For example, tallow was imported without an official certificate because the importer did not consider that it met the definition of a bovine meat product.

This also meant it was difficult for the Ministry to show that importers had not complied with the requirements in the food notice. The definitions were clarified in the 2022 Food Notice.

Frozen berries were the second type of specified high-risk food to be reviewed. Frozen berries are currently categorised as an increased regulatory interest food because of the potential risk from the Hepatitis A virus in these products.

In 2020, the Ministry looked at ways to strengthen import controls after hearing about outbreaks of Hepatitis A overseas that were attributed to frozen berries. The Ministry was also aware of more people eating uncooked frozen berries and uncertainty about the effectiveness of product testing.

The review found that imported frozen berries continued to present a significant food safety risk and should be re-categorised as a high regulatory interest food. The review also found that reliance on testing for E. Coli (to get food safety clearance) was not an effective way of managing the risk from bacterial and viral contamination. Because of this, the review recommended that testing be removed as a requirement for border clearance.

The use of official certificates is the other mechanism available for clearance of consignments of frozen berries (see paragraph 2.24). These are not commonly used because no exporting country has negotiated the development of an official certificate with the Ministry. The Ministry recommended that third party certificates be added as another option.9

The Ministry's process to assess both these food types appeared robust and in line with international best practice. The Ministry is aware of the need to review other specified high-risk foods. However, we were told that doing more of these reviews was subject to resource availability.

The Ministry needs to collect better information to understand how well import controls are working

To provide assurance that the risks of specified high-risk foods are being effectively managed, the Ministry needs to collect and collate various types of data and information. This is more than just monitoring compliance of individual importers through verification and more than monitoring food with known issues. It also includes collecting information from a variety of sources that can provide a more complete picture of where food is imported from, how it is produced and consumed, and any potential risks.

Ministry staff told us about some of the types of information that would be useful to build a complete picture of the effectiveness of importing requirements. This included information on chemical residues on food, border clearance data, reviews of New Zealand foodborne illness data, and information from system audits and verification of importers.

The Ministry collects some of this data and information, such as border clearance data of the results of sampling and testing. However, there are gaps. As mentioned, there are no monitoring programmes established under the Food Act. The Ministry does manage national monitoring programmes under other Acts (such as the Animal Products Act 1999) that involve chemical residues and microbiological testing. However, these programmes have limited coverage of imported food and cannot be used to provide assurance that food import controls are working.

Information needs to be brought together to assess how effectively the system is working and better identify emerging risks

Data on importers' compliance with food importing requirements can be used to better understand how effectively different standards are working (for example, by showing where non-compliance is commonly occurring).

The Ministry collects information about importers' compliance with food importing requirements at the border – for example, whether they have met testing requirements. This information is used to inform changes to how some clearance requirements are carried out in practice (for example, the regularity of testing for different food types).

We heard that this information can also be accessed by other parts of the Ministry, such as Food Compliance Services. However, this cannot be accessed in real time or in ways that are easy to interrogate because of how the systems are set up. For example, the Ministry's Food Regulation team can ask for reports on the data but cannot access it themselves to run their own analysis.

When collected and regularly analysed, information about compliance with clearance requirements, combined with other information the Ministry currently collects, can help to build a better understanding of how effective the current regulations are.

However, we did not see evidence that the Ministry is systematically bringing together the information it currently has and using it to understand and improve the effectiveness of food importing requirements.

The Ministry could be more proactive in its approach to understanding emerging risks. We heard from Ministry staff that work was mainly focused on more immediate food safety risks. They told us there was an opportunity to take a more strategic approach by analysing whether individual food safety events were indicators of a wider issue requiring changes to importing requirements.

In our view, the Ministry does not have an up-to-date picture of the effectiveness of all food importing requirements or of changing food safety risks. Although the Ministry uses information to react appropriately to issues as they arise, a more strategic approach would allow the Ministry to identify risks earlier and ensure that it is making improvements to food import controls in a timely way.

Recommendation 3
We recommend that the Ministry for Primary Industries strengthen the system for controlling the import of specified high-risk foods by ensuring that it has the information it needs to:
  • regularly review the requirements for importing specified high-risk foods so that they are appropriate, clear, and working as intended; and
  • detect food safety risks earlier, better understand them, and respond more effectively.

7: Businesses deemed higher risk include restaurants, cafés, takeaways, catering, supermarkets, butchers, and delis. Medium- and lower-risk businesses include transporters or distributors of food, bread bakeries, brewers, and manufacturers of confectionary. See

8: The audit included 30 importers of varying sizes – from companies importing about one container load of goods each year to some importing more than 60 containers each year. It covered all food types, not just specified high-risk foods.

9: A third-party certificate is a certificate issued by an accredited certification body that confirms a food producers' food safety management system meets certain standards.