Thursday, August 18, 2022

Covid prompts cargo focus for biosecurity

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Despite the slump in passenger arrivals relieving some pressure on airport biosecurity staff, consistently high freight volumes have prompted a reallocation of MPI’s border resources amid new import threats.

A significant import risk that has arisen over the past few years is from seed imports, often touted through online gardening websites and magazines.

Despite the slump in passenger arrivals relieving some pressure on airport biosecurity staff, consistently high freight volumes have prompted a reallocation of MPI’s border resources amid new import threats.

Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) northern regional commissioner Mike Inglis said despite disruptions to supply chains, sea cargo volumes into New Zealand have remained relatively consistent over the past two years. In the meantime, airfreight, which took a hit early on in the pandemic, has continued to increase as freight companies explore different logistics pathways.

The volumes have been prompted by significant lifts in online purchasing. Mail volume in the fourth quarter of 2021 was reported as the highest of all time, the result of $2.5 billion spent online, 45% higher than the year before.

Inglis gave an outline of emerging biosecurity challenges from the new covid environment in a webinar hosted by the Tauranga Moana Biosecurity Capital initiative.

In response to the shift in purchase behaviour and ensuing pressure on border freight biosecurity, investment has been made in innovative 3D AI scanning technology and a new NZ Post $100 million-plus mail centre at Wiri has been fast-tracked and scheduled for opening next year.

“We will be building in capacity for the auto-detection of certain threats, including fruits and plant material,” Inglis said.

Five new machines in Auckland operating are also backed up by a team of sniffer dogs as the range of imported risks continues to grow.

The Rapiscan 3D border scanning technology is five to eight times more effective than 2D scanning, but some items like seeds can prove problematic for detection.

A significant import risk that has arisen over the past few years is from seed imports, often touted through online gardening websites and magazines.

Inglis said a focus on working with e-commerce platforms to remove seeds from appearing in searches with a NZ URL and campaigns on Facebook has helped significantly reduce this threat. 

Issuing significant fines for recidivist importers has also been a deterrent.

Fraudulent documentation has also been an issue, with importers issuing false fumigation certificates; 275 fraudulent documents have been detected at the border since 2019.

With the brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) season now in full swing, 55 detections have been made so far this year, up from the 42 this time last year.

“We are getting increased incursions from China. But we are also finding ships’ captains are flagging early on any detection prior to arrival,” he said.

In 2018, the detection of over 100 of the bugs on a ship discharging in Auckland had MPI direct the ship to reload and be directed to Australia for fumigation.

To date this year, no live stink bugs had been detected at Port of Tauranga.

Vehicles are often a prime item BMSBs will enter the country and MPI has been trialling inspection robots to check the undersides of imports.

“We have used it for 700 inspections so far and generally it has worked well,” he said.

Working with Australian counterparts, MPI is also working on sniffer technology that can detect volatile chemicals exuded by high-risk pests, and between the two countries algorithms are being developed for this technology.

Recognising the value of having cruise ships return to port cities while reassessing the biosecurity risks they pose, Inglis said it was highly likely next summer will witness their return to some extent.

Taking advantage of the spell in arrivals, MPI has been working to make the accreditation process for cruise operators more robust.

The most significant risk identified with the 270,000 tourists a year coming in on them is contaminated fruit containing unwanted organisms, particularly fruit flies.

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