Forest owners support quarantine review

25 May 2006

The failure of MAF's Quarantine Services to fully implement a standard for imported sea containers is jeopardising New Zealand's other biosecurity efforts, says the NZ Forest Owners Association.

The failure has been exposed in a damning report recently issued by the Audit Office.

"The report implies there is a much greater risk of being fined for accidentally carrying an apple off an international flight than for accidentally, or even maliciously, importing a sea container containing African snails or cane toads," says NZFOA chief executive David Rhodes.

He says the big investment that has been made in post-border biosecurity measures must be matched by the effort at the border. Otherwise much of this investment will be wasted and taxpayers may end up paying much more for eradication efforts.

Mr Rhodes says the association welcomes the fact that agriculture and forestry minister Jim Anderton has accepted the problem and has promised to fix it.

"We look forward to being consulted by officials, in the expectation there will be a full review of the container inspection standard and how it is implemented.

"As the minister has said, New Zealand cannot afford to take risks with biosecurity —

it is too dangerous."

Mr Rhodes says the association on a number of occasions has raised its concerns with MAF about the unacceptable risks associated with sea container inspections.

"The audit system needs to be particularly rigorous when accredited inspectors of lower-risk containers are not independent of the company importing the container. This is definitely not the case at the moment."

The Audit Office review was intended to provide Parliament and the public with assurance that the Ministry accurately identifies the sea containers that pose the highest biosecurity risk, and then comprehensively inspects and decontaminates them. "It does the exact opposite," says Mr Rhodes.

"It is particularly scathing of MAF's failure to implement the internal audits needed to monitor and improve their performance.

"The standard was introduced in March 2003 and was to have been fully implemented by the end of that year. Three years later it is still not done.

"In essence the Audit Office report says that in many cases there is no record of where the container came from, or where it is going. The declaration forms are often incorrect and state the container is clean when it isn't.

"High-risk containers can take up to three days to be inspected, no-one knows what happens to the pests in the meantime, and only a few containers get fumigated and no one knows if fumigation is working!

"Without audits there are few incentives for importers or port companies to comply with the Sea Container Import Health Standard."

The Audit Office was told, in the course of carrying out its review that " there is abuse of the system, and a lack of respect for the ministry, because the consequences of non-compliance are not a sufficiently powerful deterrent".

Mr Rhodes says forest owners consider the report to be a very useful step to getting quarantine standards on track.

"We have been happy to acknowledge the effective post-border pest eradication efforts of MAF. We now need to ensure that adequate systems and resourcing are in place for border control."