MAF reviews measures for clearance of sea containers at New Zealand's ports and border facilities

Wednesday 26 February 2003

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) today announced it will issue a public discussion document on the sea container pathway review and a draft revised biosecurity standard for importing sea containers for public comment in March.

The release of a revised standard - known as an import health standard - is being made as a result of a major review of current methods of providing biosecurity clearance for sea containers. The review included a major survey of sea containers arriving in New Zealand during 2001-2002.

"The amount of operational data analysed from the 11,000 containers we surveyed for this review was unprecedented internationally," said Neil Hyde, director of MAF Biosecurity's Border Management group.

Sea containers have long been identified and managed as a problem pathway for hitchhiker pests by MAF. A report by the Officer of the Auditor-General last year noted 100% inspection of the pathway is not practical.

The new review found that an average of one in five containers is likely to arrive with some form of internal contamination and that most contamination is found inside, rather than outside, containers. Approximately one out of every four containers arriving in New Zealand is currently inspected from the door by MAF Quarantine Service officers. Most containers are certified as being free of contamination.

"The closer we looked at the data from the cross-section of containers we surveyed, the more apparent it became that we need to broaden existing systems, encourage higher levels of compliance in consultation with the shipping industry and importers and continue to promote greater biosecurity awareness."

"MAF relies heavily on declarations and certificates about the contents of a container, use of acceptable packing material and its internal cleanliness," said Mr Hyde.

"These are all important requirements for a successful system. However as part of this review we have confirmed thousands of containers arrive with live organisms inside and with unmanifested wood packing material that requires treatment or destruction each year. Both are extremely difficult to pick up by a door inspection alone."

"Based on the new data we can also estimate that 1-2 percent of the annual total of 260,000 loaded containers arrive with cargo risk items that aren't adequately described on the container manifest. This might seem like a small figure but it undermines MAF's ability to carry out targeted inspections and it could be solved by increased compliance".

"Overall our conclusion is that we need to integrate biosecurity risk management into the entire sea container pathway, starting before a container even arrives in New Zealand and continuing until it leaves the country," said Mr Hyde.

"It is clear there isn't a 'one stop' solution to the pest pathway posed by containers and their contents so we are proposing a range of measures applicable at various stages in the pathway. This strategy is dependent on effective participation by industry so that we link our systems together."

Risk reduction measures put forward for further work over the next 6-18 months include:

  • Developing an electronic risk profiling system as part of a whole-of-government initiative, with participation by NZ Customs Service and other government agencies, to replace the current manual paper-based system.
  • Implementing a system to accredit non-MAF staff to supervise unpacking of containers at various locations within New Zealand.
  • Building on awareness material already being produced by the Protect New Zealand programme's "See-Contain-Report" campaign.
  • Instituting a strategy to determine compliance and target increased intervention and costs at parties who fail to comply with biosecurity standards. 
  • Widening a current requirement on shippers to certify the internal cleanliness of containers to include pre-clearance of external surfaces, perhaps aligned to inspections for structural soundness. 
  • Promoting international harmonisation of biosecurity standards for containers and containerised cargoes. 
  • Assessing the equivalence of risk mitigation systems proposed by shippers or importers.

The review notes that some measures will involve additional costs for monitoring, enforcement and auditing. Other factors considered include legality, commercial impact, social and environmental implications, practicality and safety.

Using the proposed risk mitigation strategy, it is expected that the biosecurity risks posed by the container pathway will be significantly reduced. Reducing risk offshore, before the containers arrive in New Zealand, is a key component of the strategy.

"The challenge will be to involve everybody so that the task of protecting New Zealand from exotic pests and diseases is seen as a 'shared responsibility'," said Mr Hyde.

For further information contact:
Neil Hyde Director, Border Management Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Tel: (09) 368 5143 or (021) 888 331


  • Data for the review was gathered from four ports: Auckland, Tauranga, Napier and Lyttelon. In 2001/2002 these ports handled 83% of both full and empty containers coming into New Zealand; as a single port Auckland alone handled 63% of full containers and 30% of empty containers.
  • All container inspections were performed by officers of MAF Quarantine Service. These officers undergo ongoing training programmes designed to ensure that all officers achieve consistency in biosecurity decision-making.
  • A portable probe camera was trialled for use in internal container inspection at each port, where feasible to do so, over several months. This type of equipment has not been proposed for general use although it was useful in special circumstances.
  • To verify the accuracy of the manifest description of the contents and packaging in containers, a sub-sample of 1500 containers was selected for a follow-up inspection of the entire devanning and unloading process.
  • Every second follow-up container was selected for a movement information survey to track the various locations the containers were transported to before being re-exported. This showed that a third of the containers remained within the urban areas surrounding the port of arrival, while some 26 percent were sent to rural areas for packing for export and the remainder shuttled or remained in transit somewhere between New Zealand's main centres.
  • The review includes an extensive list of approximately 600 different organisms found in the course of more than 11,000 container inspections. These are classified by their scientific names, where known.
  • Approximately 40 percent of the organisms were insects, spiders or other arthropods; 36 percent were fungi and moulds; and 23 percent were plant material and seeds. The remaining 1 percent was made up of 1 dead skink, two dead geckos, a live gecko and miscellaneous animal material. Of the identified organisms, approximately two-thirds were already present in New Zealand.
  • The project team for the Sea Container Review included representatives of the shipping industry, NZ Customs, Ministry of Health, Department of Conservation and Ministry for the Environment. The team was headed by Mike Alexander supported by Dr Carolyn Whyte, both of MAF Biosecurity's Border Management group.




Last Updated: 30 September 2010

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