16 Nov 2020

Covid-19: Ardern confident New Zealand products 'are not exported with Covid'

7:00 pm on 16 November 2020

The meat industry is waiting with bated breath to find out if there is any truth that New Zealand meat is linked to a coolstore in China where Covid-19 has been found on packaging.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says yesterday they were told that there had been positive Covid-19 tests from packaging of beef from Argentina. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Reuters has reported the virus was found on beef and tripe products in a storage facility containing shipments from Argentina, Brazil and New Zealand.

The virus was apparently found on more than 3500 products in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan, in Shandong province.

Apart from saying where the products originated, Chinese authorities have not named the companies that shipped them.

New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade it had not been informed officially by Chinese authorities, and officials were trying to find the origin and veracity of the media reports.

In the post-Cabinet briefing this afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the government was advised yesterday that there had been positive Covid-19 tests from packaging of beef from Argentina.

They were also advised that there were some New Zealand products stored in the same coolstore where the positive tests were returned.

Unlike some media reports, they were not advised that any New Zealand products had tested positive. The government was seeking more information on the testing.

"I want to get to the bottom of this ... this is incredibly important to New Zealand. We are confident, of course, that our products do not and are not exported with signs of Covid on them given our status as essentially being Covid-free," Ardern said.

Minister of Trade Damien O'Connor said there was nothing to suggest the virus originated in New Zealand.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor at a press conference announcing the Government's reforms to clean up our  waterways, Beehive Theatrette, Wellington.

Minister of Trade Damien O'Connor Photo: Pool / Stuff / Kevin Stent

"We have been aware of the Chinese investigating the possibility of Covid spreading through frozen goods. It's a very, very slim possibility. Genetic material can be found on the goods, we know that, but the risk of it spreading infection is very, very low."

He said it was a timely reminder to exporters about the risks.

"If they have people who are sick, working anywhere in New Zealand even though we have no community transmission, they should take all precautions and make sure people don't come to work."

The Meat Industry Association said they were essentially in a holding pattern awaiting more information from China, with chief executive Sirma Karapeeva saying the science suggested transmission of the virus on frozen products was negligible.

"We haven't had any feedback from our members that suggests that their product has been caught up in this and they should know, they've got really close links with their importers in China. So I tend to agree with the minister, it's not clear or seen any evidence to suggest any New Zealand product has been implicated."

She said it proved China was serious about the risks of Covid getting back in.

"They have stepped up their product testing on imports. They are testing all products as they come through the border, so clearly they are taking this very seriously and in a way it's positive to see that they are focused on managing Covid within their own borders."

Karapeeva advised people to keep calm and carry on.

"Now is not the time to panic, we have very good systems in place for food safety as well as for Covid management and we are confident those systems are robust in managing transmission within New Zealand, so as long as companies follow the rules I think they should be fine."

She told Checkpoint it was unfortunate that unsubstantiated reports were out in the international arena.

"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."

The impact on New Zealand's reputation was the most concerning issue, Karapeeva said.

"It has the potential to damage the reputation of New Zealand red meat exports and especially... [because] these are unsubstantiated reports. We have a very long-standing [and] 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."

She said the meat industry moved collectively and quickly at the start of the pandemic to establish robust protocols around management of risks.

"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."

AgriHQ senior sheep and beef analyst Mel Croad said meat exports to China were heading into the busiest period of the year so any hiccup was a worry.

''From here until about March-April, our export volumes are ramping up every month just reflecting those higher processing volumes back here. It's crucial that we have got a good flow into our export markets.''

The Ministry of Primary Industry's assessment remains that the risk of Covid-19 transmission by food or food packaging is negligible.

The Meat Industry Association said it was unfortunate New Zealand products seemed to be implicated in something with very little or no evidence.