The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is to scrap a paper-based container inspection system that is causing importers woes and co-ordinate it with Cusmod, Customs' electronic system for checking containers and arriving passengers.
"Our intention is to work with existing systems, because Customs already has the ability to set profiles on containers," says MAF border risk management advisor Carolyn Whyte.
From January 1, MAF has required all containers entering New Zealand to be accompanied by a declaration from the overseas exporter and importers can't unload until they get the go-ahead from MAF.
To do that, importers need to fax another form to MAF, get the container to a warehouse where it can be inspected, then get a second permit before the goods can be taken to their destination.
Previously, that arrangement only applied to containers considered "high risk", but from this year all 420,000 containers entering New Zealand must be inspected that way.
Some importers say it is causing them serious delays.
"We told MAF they're not in a position to implement a system because it isn't ready to integrate with Customs, but they decided to go ahead anyway," says NZ Importers Institute secretary Daniel Silva.
"To do on paper what someone will eventually put into a database makes no sense."
Silva claims the fax number is often busy and says MAF is "chasing paper instead of chasing spiders".
The change to container regulations is part of legislation introduced in September following a report that sea containers are a prime means for pests entering New Zealand.
The paper-based system is an interim measure, Whyte says, and the intention is to have MAF's inspections co-ordinated with Customs' by the middle of the year.
A project team is being set up to work on a compatible module for MAF "and we're hoping some parts will be implemented on a progressive basis", she says.
"Customs has its IT programme for the year and so do we, so we have to make sure it fits into our existing programme."
Some parts will be deployed by March, others by June, she says. "That's the tentative plan at this stage as we haven't had the full workshop with Customs yet."
Another aspect of the new process is training for importers in spotting spiders and other pests.
At present importers are required to attend training courses in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch but the training will become available over the internet from the end of January, says MAF spokeswoman Philippa White.
Asked why MAF didn't wait until the Cusmod integration before introducing the new container inspection regulations, MAF border management director Neil Hyde, in a statement, replied: "The new import health standard for sea containers was introduced from September 1. MAF made a decision to give priority to dealing with the biosecurity risks in this pathway."
Despite the Importer's Institute's complaints, Hyde says the initial problems with the interim clearance system have now been largely addressed. "And some very positive feedback is being received."