Spiralling compliance costs have long been a bone of contention between members of the apiculture industry and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). Now, one honey packer has had enough and has filed a complaint to the Chief Ombudsman of New Zealand against MPI – and they are seeking letters of support from others in apiculture. Meanwhile, industry bodies representing honey producers and packers say they are doing their best to curb MPI’s fee increases as businesses grapple for survival in the face of fallen honey prices, but is there any chance the government will act on the pleas?
“I am saying, ‘no’. After 30 years of this I have had enough. This is robbery,” says Chris Watkins.
The Honeylands Naturally owner and director is seeking to reduce both the cost of his own audit and registration fees and that of others in the honey industry with a complaint to the Ombudsman of New Zealand. The Ombudsman handles complaints about government agencies and seeks to resolve them.
Over their 30 years packing and exporting honey, specialising in single servings for the airline, hospitality and healthcare industries, Watkins says he has dealt with a range of agencies from Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, AsureQuality, New Zealand Food Safety and now MPI, but compliance costs have never been such a burden on business as what they are now.
“Beekeepers understand there needs to be a form of policing to ensure there are not rogues out there, because some people out there do silly stuff with honey. That is not the problem, it is the escalation of costs, especially from a honey perspective. The rise in honey prices is nothing like the 150 percent MPI has just put through with the bee levy. For a small operator it is crippling,” Watkins says.
Last year the annual ‘export bee levy’, which anyone exporting honey or hive products is required to hold, went up from $1005.70 per annum to $2566.08. At the same time MPI’s rate for staff to audit risk management programme (RMP) facilities, which exporters are also required to have, went from $176 to $230.50 per hour.
For Watkins, whose business is based in Wanaka, the straw that broke the camel’s back and forced him into action was a remote RMP audit fee of nearly $1400, when previously they had always come in below $500. After questioning the amount charged, Watkins took his complaint to MPI and, after some letter writing back and forward with various managers, two of the $230.50-priced hours were removed from the bill, but the charges are still not accurate he says.
Honeylands is not only subject to the export fee of $2566.08 as well as the twice-yearly audits of their RMP facility, but also required to undergo separate annual Food Safety Programme inspections which cost them around $1600. That despite the inspections largely being a replication of what is assessed in the RMP audits, Watkins says.
He also believes that a set fee for an export bee levy is unfair on smaller operators and a pro-rata system where fees are based on tonnes exported would make for a more just system.
A letter to the Minister overseeing MPI, Damien O’Connor, as well as that of Food Safety, Meka Whaitiri, outlining his concerns was “as good as wasting time”. So, Watkins says he has been left with no option but to approach the Ombudsman. He has included letters of additional complaints from others in the industry to strengthen his submission and is asking anyone else who feels they have been subject to inaccuracies or unfairness from MPI to contact him.
“Anything that anyone could give me, I will forward on with the complaint number and it will help paint the picture of what is going on. Beekeepers up and down the country have experienced the same thing,” Watkins says.
Industry Bodies’ Ongoing Battles
Watkins isn’t alone in voicing his displeasure to MPI, with apicultural industry bodies Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) and New Zealand Beekeeping Inc (NZBI) both notifying the Ministry of their concerns in recent years. Despite this, MPI have forged on with fee increases, although in 2022 the annual domestic bee levy (for honey sellers who don’t wish to export) was reduced from $471.80 to $308.
“The domestic bee levy went down because they had surpluses, while the export levy went well up because significant deficits had tallied up. Our view is, keep a tighter watch on it and keep us updated rather than hitting us with a big increase,” says Karin Kos, chief executive of ApiNZ.
When MPI proposed levy increases they called for consultation and much of what was provided by ApiNZ and NZBI appears to have been ignored. Among those requests in ApiNZ’s submission was greater transparency of costings.
“It would be really helpful for us to understand why those rates are what they are and what is behind them. That is the message we have pushed to MPI through our Standards Focus Group and I have personally too. We want transparency around their cost recovery arrangements. Why is this $230.50 an hour?”
As well as that hourly rate, auditors also bill travel time, mileage, accommodation costs, meals and ‘incidentals’ to RMP holders.
One supposed win for beekeepers was a change in December 2021 which made available a higher ‘step 7’ which RMP holders could obtain with sufficient training, meaning they would be subject to annual audits of their facility as opposed to twice-yearly.
However, information obtained under an Official Information Act shows that of the 734 RMP audits carried out by MPI in 2022, only three were on premises at step 7.
“I doubt whether people are even bothering to do the training,” NZBI president Jane Lorimer says.
“They haven’t told us how often we will have to do refresher courses on the training required to obtain step 7 and thus annual audits. So, most have worked out it will be cheaper to stay on the six-monthly audit even though it’s a pain in the backside and the wallet.”
Lorimer says trying to work with MPI is “a real battle” and points to the high number of regularly complying RMP holders as evidence the system is overbearing, with only 10 of the 734 audits in 2022 resulting in noncompliance.
“Our product generally is safe from a food safety perspective. It seems those who are negotiating access for our product offshore are saying ‘we can do this for you’ to foreign markets and therefore beekeepers are then having to jump through those hoops they set. It creates barriers and we don’t seem to be getting a higher return,” Lorimer says.
It’s a battle NZBI and ApiNZ will continue to fight on behalf of the industry, but Kos says individuals need to step up too and make sure their voice is heard. A prime opportunity to do that is on MPI’s Proposed Changes to Cost Recovery which is open for consultation until April 24. Kos says it appears apiculture has largely avoided any further increases in fees under the proposal document, which may be a positive outcome of their advocacy last year, but beekeepers should strive to be heard again nonetheless.
“We do what we can for our members, but I have spoken to beekeepers who don’t submit. Often they don’t have time, but it would be really helpful if they could, and did, make their opinions known on the issues,” Kos says.
Watkins is one such honey trader who has done that, in his way. He says he understands the processes have their place, but the current system is not right.
“We employ the auditors to help our business and if we can make it simpler and take out costs, let’s do that,” Watkins says, adding “at the same time, let’s not increase the costs so it becomes a burden on industry”.
Anyone wanting to contact Chris Watkins and add a contribution to his submission to the Ombudsman can email firstname.lastname@example.org