Kiwifruit earnings at risk

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Zespri chairman John Loughlin says some kiwifruit earnings from China could be at risk if Chinese officials sell up the assets of a Zespri import agent arrested for evading millions of dollars of customs duties.

While the kiwifruit export marketer is denying Chinese media reports that 30,000 tonnes of New Zealand fruit were seized when Zespri agent Liu Xiongjie was arrested in June on suspicion of smuggling, Loughlin said some fruit could still be at risk.

“Authorities could grab his assets to pay his duty obligations.”

Zespri, the sole marketer of premium-priced New Zealand kiwifruit beyond Australasia, expects to export 10 million trays to China this year. It said the market was worth well over $100m last year. Zespri’s total revenue last year was $1.5 billion.

Chinese media report that Liu was arrested for evading around US$9.4m in import duties since 2007.

Loughlin said Liu was a very successful importer whom Zespri had used for five years. He imported fruit from other countries too.

“He hasn’t been charged, but they put them in jail over there (after arrest). Nothing has been impounded to my knowledge. They (growers) shouldn’t lose money but as in any business there is always risk.”

A Zespri spokesman said the 2011 selling season to China remains on track. Zespri was a witness in the investigation in China and was working with Chinese customs officials to fully understand the situation, he said.

But Te Puke grower Chris Dunn, who last night flew out to China on business, said he would try to get to the bottom of the fruit seizure claims after getting “various answers” on the fate of New Zealand fruit from Zespri personnel.

A former fruit trader himself, he planned to question fruit importers in China.

The fruit trading world was “quite small” and news of the arrest leaked out in the Bay of Plenty some weeks ago, said Dunn, a member of breakaway independent growers group IKGA, and a grower of Turners and Growers-licenced red fruit. Turners is a vocal critic of Zespri’s exporter dominance and has been trying to overturn legislation propping up its market power for the past year.

He had tried to get answers on the fate of fruit Liu was handling this year, but Zespri leaders had been “vague”. “They told me it was a political matter.”


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