Major changes from the 1970s
Meat processing changed dramatically after the 1970s, when most New Zealand meat was still exported as frozen carcasses. At that time Britain was the largest market for sheep meat, with the United States the largest for beef.
Factors forcing change in the next two decades included:
- Britain’s entry to the European Economic Community, which brought an end to practically free access to the British market; and changes in market access to the United States, which meant New Zealand meat processors had to find new markets
- new hygiene standards set by Europe and the United States – which meant works had to be upgraded to comply
- new processing and packaging technology – so meat no longer had to be frozen, but could be shipped chilled
- the deregulation of the New Zealand meat-processing industry in 1980 – which made it easier to start new plants with new technology.
Old freezing works close
As a result of these changes many older works closed from the mid-1980s – nine large multi-chain plants closed between 1987 and 1991. Closures were because the old works could not easily be upgraded to meet new hygiene standards, and because overcapacity in the industry meant too many works were competing for too few animals. In 1994 the Tōmoana, Feilding, Aotearoa, Whāngārei and Kaiti works closed because their owning company, Weddel, collapsed under debt.
Tōmoana suddenly stops
One Friday evening in 1994 Dot Waitoa was setting up for work on the night shift at Tōmoana freezing works, in Hawke’s Bay, when ‘All of a sudden there were security guards everywhere. Our supervisor said, “put your knives down, this place is being closed.” Then he started crying and said, “I’m sorry. Please go to your lockers, take any personal gear, do not take any company gear. That’s all I know, all I’ve been told to tell you.” I went home and saw the announcement of Tōmoana’s closure on the television news.’1
Closure impacts communities
When freezing works closed down, large numbers of people, often many members of the same extended family, were suddenly out of work. The whole community was affected as spending power dropped sharply.
Pātea was the most famous case. When its Vestey-owned freezing works closed in 1982, the Taranaki town lost 700 of its 1,000 jobs. Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club expanded their hit song ‘Poi e’ into a musical about the effects of the works’ closure on the town, winning music awards and doing a British tour.
New products in new packages
In its search for new markets, the meat industry had to present meat the way customers wanted it – as cuts of meat ready for sale to retail customers.
By the 2000s new meat-processing plants packaged cuts of meat, either froze or chilled them, and usually packaged them into the product that would be bought by the consumer in a retail outlet in one of the more than 100 countries to which New Zealand exports meat.
Among New Zealand’s new export markets are those requiring sheep to be killed according to Islamic law, with a single slice to the throat and with their necks and stomachs facing towards Mecca. Many works incorporated Halal butchering so they could sell to Islamic countries.
Increased mechanisation and fewer strikes
Increased mechanisation and changes in operation sped up the meat works process. In 2009 Alliance’s Lorneville works in Invercargill had four chains that processed eight sheep per minute. In some works robotic technology operated the big saws that make the first cuts to carve up a carcass – the ‘robots’ providing a safer, as well as more efficient, method of ‘disassembling’ the carcass.
Works were often double-shifted – two 12-hour shifts a day at the peak of the season, often with staff on a ‘four days on, four days off’ work schedule. Changes in employment legislation allowed for such arrangements, and brought a sharp decline in strikes. Striking meat workers lost $36 million in lost wages in 1990, the year before the Employment Contracts Act, and only $1 million the following season.
Women can be butchers
When the Ocean Beach Freezing Company refused to let three female employees become mutton butchers, the women laid a complaint with the Human Rights Commission – and won. The commission’s 1979 ruling said the management had unfairly discriminated against them. The company refused to back down before the commission instituted legal proceedings. The case was taken before the Equal Opportunities Tribunal – which ruled in 1980 that the women had to be considered purely on their ability to do the job.
Women in the works
Some women were employed as ‘bag room girls’, shearing and packing fleeces in some works in the late 19th century. During the Second World War women were employed in the canning departments of some works.
But the employment of women in meat works really began in the 1970s, first at Ocean Beach and Longburn. At first women were restricted to a few jobs in departments such as casings, lamb cuts and offal. In 1978 two women at the Feilding meat works became the first female mutton butchers in New Zealand.
By the early 1980s women made up about 5% of workers in export works. There were more women in newer works, where they had been employed from the start of operations. For example at Takapua and Oringi women made up 30% and 21% of the work force respectively in 1984.
Farmer cooperatives own meat works
By the end of the 20th century, meat works were again mainly owned by New Zealand farmer cooperatives, as they had been a century before. In 2009 the largest of the farmer cooperatives, Silver Fern Farms, operated 21 processing plants and employed 7,000 people at the peak of the killing season.
Meat processing works are important features of a local economy. For example, because Alliance’s Smithfield works injected more than $20 million into the economy in 2004, the Timaru District Council cut the waste and water charges it would have paid by $300,000.
21st century meat works
In 2009 there were about 80 meat-processing plants in New Zealand, employing about 26,500 people and exporting to about 150 countries. These ranged from small single-plant operations to some of New Zealand’s largest companies – such as Silver Fern Farms, Alliance Group, ANZCO Foods and AFFCO. Most produced a combination of frozen and chilled products, packaged ready for supermarkets or other customers.