Lost in translation


Gary Hartley

By Gary Hartley of GS1 New Zealand

China imports around $20 million worth of New Zealand meat each week. It’s intriguing to fathom how that established trade was suddenly put in jeopardy by technical issues in the documentation?

First, the Chinese government is increasingly wary of counterfeit food and now insists on precision in identifying products as they cross its borders. Clearly a responsible stance by any government – and especially in China where investigation recently uncovered a major racket passing off rat, fox and mink meat as mutton. Second, the New Zealand government has recently changed the name of the state agency that facilitates the international movement of our primary exports (from MAF to MPI). Apparently the relevant documentation on meat shipments to China was changed at the same time but not in a way that was meaningful in China.

The result was official confusion over the origins and status of frozen meat shipments arriving in various Chinese ports – enough to stall the trade for three weeks. Hopefully this will not cast a shadow over New Zealand labeled lamb, mutton or beef into the future.

It’s likely that there may have been little doubt among officials in Shanghai or Beijing over the true nature of the shipments that arrived in early May – but that is not the point. Certification for export from New Zealand and all other details in the accompanying documents had to line up. Unambiguous, precise identification really mattered – identification of the product, its source and the relevant agency (or agencies) who authorised its shipment.

There’s positives to be gained here, I think. If nothing else, the episode illustrates the need for absolute clarity in the identification of goods, and their status, as they are being bought and sold across the world. It shows how vulnerable supply chains are to any breakdown in this form of communication.

Just as well we all have a global language of business!

That is what the GS1 identifiers provide – a system of numbering that can be applied by anyone in the world and understand by anyone else regardless of whether they speak Mandarin, English or Arabic. This system enables products and services, assets, physical locations and business entities to have their own globally-unique identifier which can be recognised and used anywhere on earth.

Of course, the parties in any supply chain must be users of GS1 identifiers and have them integrated with their business systems (in ways that best suit each enterprise or agency). Today over 145 countries, New Zealand and China included, are widespread users of GS1 identifiers.

These supply chain standards set the foundation for international information flows that support global trade. Customs and biosecurity authorities in some countries are beginning to exchange electronically, GS1 identifiers and related data so that shipments of food, clothing and other goods are precisely identified and tracked up to, over and beyond international borders.

That clever TV advertisement from Silver Fern Farms proclaims that “it’s not easy” to produce the world’s best lamb – you need the best genetics, best pastures and best farmers. Identification of that great product and its supply chain status should surely be the easy part!

The recent China export meat episode is a graphic reminder that unambiguous, precise information about products, especially in our biggest markets, is critical to New Zealand’s success as a trading nation.