Fruit and vegetables can be preserved by bottling or canning. Local canning companies began by using up surplus in-season fruit and vegetables. Fruit was cored, peeled and packed into tins by hand. Canning preserves food by cooking it in a sterilised sealed metal container. For commercial manufacturers the cylindrical canisters (later shortened to ‘cans’) were an improvement on storing food in glass jars, as they were cheaper, faster to make and less likely to break. Cans were originally made of tin (hence their alternative name), then of cheaper tin-plated steel, and then lacquered steel.
By 1891 there were 15 canning factories operating in New Zealand, supplying local and export markets. The sector was dominated by four main companies. Irvine and Stevenson sold canned fruit, jam, fish and meat from 1864, which was processed in Dunedin under their St George brand. Kirkpatrick and Co. of Nelson sold their ‘K’ brand jam and fruit from 1881. Tomato soup and green peas had been added to the range by 1926, and baked beans and spaghetti in tomato sauce appeared in the early 1930s. Tinned spaghetti and macaroni were probably the only pasta dishes most New Zealanders ate. The largest cannery was Wattie’s.
Fruit was the most popular canned food – 1,500 tonnes were canned in 1950, and over 20,000 tonnes by 1984, mostly for the local market. Peaches and pears remained favourites, accounting for 50–60% of production. The growth in commercial canning was matched by a decline in home preserving from the 1970s.
Several meat companies operated canneries, mostly for sheep tongues, jellied veal and corned beef. Corned beef from New Zealand was exported to the Pacific Islands and became a popular food.
A man of action
In the 1930s James Wattie was horrified that Hawke’s Bay fruit rotted on the ground while local jam-makers imported Australian fruit pulp. ‘We’ll do something about this,’ he said. What he did was build the largest food-producing empire in New Zealand. Wattie’s became synonymous with products such as spaghetti and tomato sauce.
Canned vegetables – sweet corn, green beans, asparagus and beetroot, together with baked beans – became popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Sales declined in the 1970s as frozen food became more popular. In the 2000s tomatoes were the most common canned vegetable, often imported from Italy or Thailand.
James Wattie opened a pulping and canning business in Hastings in 1934. His company grew to become New Zealand’s largest food producer and a Hawke’s Bay institution. In the 2000s Wattie’s had three factories – the original in King Street, Hastings, and others at nearby Tōmoana, and in Christchurch. Around 1,900 people were employed (including 350 seasonal workers) to produce 140,000 tonnes of food products each year for domestic and export markets. Wattie’s merged with General Foods in the 1960s, and became part of Goodman Fielder Wattie in 1987. After 1992 it was part of the global corporate H. J. Heinz group.