16 Nov 2020

Claim of Covid-19 on NZ meat in China 'unsubstantiated'- leader

From Checkpoint, 5:13 pm on 16 November 2020

A meat industry leader says an unsubstantiated claim that Covid-19 has been found on New Zealand meat exports to China has the potential to damage NZ's reputation.

China is a massive market for NZ meat and offal. Last year we exported $3.4 billion-worth of it there.

Now Reuters news agency is reporting that traces coronavirus have been found on the packaging of New Zealand beef and tripe in the Chinese city of Jinan. Other product from Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina has also tested positive.

The New Zealand government said there is nothing to indicate the virus originated from NZ.

Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva told Checkpoint she does not think New Zealand meat is under the microscope.

"The concern for us is that these reports are unsubstantiated. Our background digging and information-gathering with our members, with foreign affairs colleagues and Ministry for Primary Industries colleagues, do not support that this is in fact New Zealand product that has been tested and found to be positive in China.

"Very early on in the Covid-19 crisis, the meat industry was probably one of the first, if not the first, industries to move very quickly forward collectively to put in place strong, robust protocols to manage the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace," she said.

"The protocols we have in place, they're based on the best available science and guidance from the likes of the World Health Organisation, the Ministry for Primary Industries, of course New Zealand's Health Ministry as well.

"They are protocols that focus on the norms around social distancing, the wearing of personal protective equipment, hygiene and sanitation, as well as contact tracing.

"I think those protocols, we can be very proud of them, they have stood the test of time. In New Zealand, we are clearly committed to managing and protecting the safety of our people and doing everything we can to actually prevent the spread of this terrible disease and stop it from coming into our workforce in the very first place."

The impact on New Zealand's reputation is the most concerning issue, she said.

"It has the potential to damage the reputation of New Zealand red meat exports and especially… these are unsubstantiated reports. We have a very long-standing at a very proud history of trading in safe product from New Zealand.

"This has held up exceptionally well during the early days of Covid and in fact we were one of the only sectors that were able to return a billion dollars' worth of exports in one month in March, slap bang in the middle of Covid.

"It's just very, very unfortunate that information is being put out there in the international arena that is not substantiated.

"We have robust systems in place and for us it's very, very important. We put a lot of effort and emphasis on compliance, because we understand the importance to keep trading and to keep exporting that product and bringing back that export revenue for New Zealand as a whole."

Karapeeva said the Meat Industry Association is talking with its member companies to double check what they know of the situation, and what they are hearing from the importers.

"We are also working very closely with the Ministry for Primary Industries and Foreign Affairs to get to the bottom of this.

"Our relationship is mainly informed by the relationship of New Zealand officials and Chinese officials. We don't necessarily have a direct relationship with Chinese officials, and we do rely on the information and networks that New Zealand's officials have into that market."

She said she has no knowledge of the possibility China might put a hold on New Zealand's meat while the situation is ongoing.

"When other countries' product have been put on hold… it is on the back of having community transmission within those countries. We don't have community transmission in New Zealand. There was no reason or rationale for our product to be put on hold, or for any of our premises to be suspended.

"It's not surprising that China's doing more testing at the border. I think that is within their right to ensure that their people are safe, just as we are doing whatever we can to ensure that our people are safe.

"The fact that you can find traces of the genetic material from Covid-19 on packaging there are signs to support that. The point to remember here is that while you might be able to find that trace material, the transmission by food and food packaging is negligible, and the World Health Organisation has been very specific in stating that transmission by airborne droplets and aerosols is the dominant pathway for Covid-19 infection spread," Karapeeva told Checkpoint.

"It's not great for us, and at the moment I'm just letting them get on and put in the necessary calls through their official channels. And I just have to wait until that process runs its course."