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Key's two-day visit to China is largely aimed at repairing the damage Fonterra's botulism false alarm caused to this country's reputation for safe food products in our biggest export market.
Carl Worker, New Zealand's Ambassador to China, informed exporters via email yesterday that Key had been "extended the additional honour of hospitality by a very senior Chinese leader"and his arrival at Beijing's Four Seasons Hotel tomorrow night would be "unavoidably delayed".
Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye and Trade Minister Tim Groser would attend the meet-and-greet in Key's place, Worker said in the email.
He said Key would attend a dinner function following the meet-and-greet and looked forward to meeting guests at the dinner, which the dairy export firms and their Chinese partners have also been invited to.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said Key had accepted a formal dinner invitation from Xi.
Key was already scheduled to have meetings with Xi and China's Premier, Li Keqiang.
"This additional meeting with China's President is clearly a huge honour and a measure of the deepening relationship with New Zealand," the spokeswoman said. "New Zealand exporters and their Chinese customers will be acutely aware of the potential benefits of such a meeting."
Marco Marinkovich, founder of infant formula firm Kiwimilk Nutrition, one of the exporters invited to the Beijing event, said he understood the Prime Minister's meeting with Xi was important, but the meet-and-greet with Key would have been a valuable opportunity for companies such as his.
"We were all under the impression that here's an opportunity to make good with our key customers, invite them along, meet our leader to gain confidence and ask questions about the Fonterra botch up," Marinkovich said. "This will not happen - how do we explain this after seven months of waiting?"
He said small-scale infant formula exporters like Kiwimilk were the "collateral damage"of the botulism scare.
"Fonterra keeps on happily selling its commodities to China and global companies while legitimate New Zealand infant formula brands are struggling to recapture the position they had [before] August last year," Marinkovich said. "Now we have some kind of make good with our distributors in China and we get this last minute change to the agenda."
Another exporter said it was disappointing that Key had pulled out of the meet-and-greet session.
"Meeting Groser or Kaye doesn't have the same pull at all," the exporter said.