24 Nov 2021

Food exporters' vaccine mandate put on ice

4:27 pm on 24 November 2021

The introduction of a vaccine mandate for food exporters is on ice for now, with the sector instead being encouraged to use a new assessment tool that'll be released next month.

Fresh raw red meat at the butcher in refrigerated display

Meat Industry Association chief executive, Sirma Karapeeva, said Covid-19 had been shown to spread extremely rapidly in meat processing plants overseas . Photo: 123rf

The government had been looking at whether a vaccine mandate should be used to help exporters maintain market access for New Zealand products, sighting that trade was vital to the country's economic recovery.

The Ministry for Primary Industries and Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment undertook discussions with the sector in recent weeks to help inform this work. MBIE also sought independent legal advice.

An MPI spokesperson said industry indicated it was broadly in favour of a mandate, and some wanted to retain flexibility, such as an opt-in process

But the spokesperson said it been determined a mandate was not required at this stage. Part of the rationale for the decision was that no market New Zealand exported currently had requirements in place which meant product had to come from a premises where staff were vaccinated, they said.

"The Covid-19 Response (Vaccinations) Legislation Bill provides the ability to create an Order to mandate vaccinations to maintain market access. At this stage it's not proposed to progress with an Order, because there are tools that can help businesses determine whether or not they require vaccinated workers," they said.

The government announced on Tuesday it would launch a new tool to help employers figure out which of their staff need to be vaccinated.

The tool is still being refined but is likely to assess four factors - the environment an employee works in, if they work near others, if that is for long periods, and if they provide services to people who are vulnerable to Covid-19.

Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva said a vaccine mandate for the sector would've been preferable, as it was a more clear-cut approach.

"We're certainly seeking more clarity from both MBIE and WorkSafe, about that risk assessment tool and its application," she said.

"Until we have clarity, it's really hard to make a firm position as to whether it is a useful tool or not."

Karapeeva said Covid-19 had been shown to spread extremely rapidly in meat processing plants overseas and having vaccinated staff helped to reduce that risk.

"I think a mandate would have made things a lot easier, a lot cleaner. And it would have just facilitated things for for businesses in a more simple way."

Nervousness about access to China.

Meat processor Alliance said as Covid-19 spread across New Zealand, the potiential risk of losing market access did become an increasing worry.

While the New Zealand Food Safety and Science Research Centre has said there is no evidence of foodborne transmission of Covid-19, China has signalled it could suspend access to exporter's goods if there was a Covid-19 outbreak at a food production site in New Zealand.

Alliance chair Murray Taggart said if a Covid-19 outbreak occurred at one of its plants it would have to notify Chinese authorities, which could potentially result in China suspending product from a registered export premises.

"The uncertainty there is no one's quite sure how long you lose the listing for and what the rules are forgetting re-listed again."

"That is an area of real nervousness for us, and so anything we can do to mitigate that, we're looking at pretty closely."

Taggart said the company was exercising a great deal of caution to reduce the risk posed by Covid and protocols, including temperature testing, were in place at plants.

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