Although sheep flocks were established in New Zealand from 1840 onwards, it was not until the late 1860s that the natural increase of the sheep population exceeded the numbers required for flock replacement, the establishment of new flocks, and the needs of the local market for lamb and mutton. At this stage, the attention of pastoralists, particularly in the South Island, became focused on the serious question of finding a profitable method of disposal of fat sheep. The problem was not new. Australia and Argentina had long been faced with it, while the fact that the demand for meat in Great Britain had overtaken the home-grown supply, together with a decline in the price of wool, lent even greater urgency to finding a method of meat preservation, both to maintain British supplies and to bolster the failing pastoral economy of the colonies. Following on Australian experiences, meat canning works were established at Timaru, Oamaru, and Woodlands (in Southland) from about 1869. The combined capacity of these works was small and the quality of the product unreliable. It soon became clear that preservation by freezing was a more promising venture.
The pioneers of refrigerated transport from New Zealand were William Saltau Davidson and Thomas Brydone of the New Zealand and Australian Land Company. Davidson, while at the company's headquarters in Scotland, discovered that a successful shipment of frozen mutton had been made from Australia to London in 1880. He therefore determined to try an experimental shipment from New Zealand and for this purpose chartered the sailing ship Dunedin. After initial difficulties caused by the breakdown of the refrigerating plant, the ship sailed on 15 February 1882, and arrived in London on 24 May, the cargo being in sound condition. After word had been received of the success of the shipment, further cargoes were arranged in the same year. Freezing works were quickly established, the first being the New Zealand Refrigerating Company which was formed in 1881 and was in operation at Burnside, Dunedin, in 1882. The export trade in mutton and lamb developed steadily, and by 1889 the number of carcasses exported exceeded 1 million. In these early years, mutton carcasses made up the bulk of the shipments, but by 1900 the lamb trade was firmly established. The period from 1882 to 1900 was nevertheless full of difficulties for the trade. Prices declined, cargoes were frequently damaged, and freight rates were high and were only slowly reduced as the sailing ships were replaced by steamships.
Grading of carcasses by weight appears to have started about 1890 but the lines were mixed in quality and the weight standards adopted differed among the various freezing works. Failure to regulate shipping and to provide adequate cold-storage space resulted in seasonal gluts on the British market, with consequent low prices. These difficulties persisted until after the formation of the New Zealand Meat Producers' Board in 1922. The Board set about the tasks of controlling shipments, establishing uniform grading standards, negotiating reduced freight rates, advertising, and investigating new markets. These activities did much to foster the meat industry and to establish its present form and organisation.