Story: Meat and wool

Page 3. Meat exporting history and meat processing

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The beginnings of the frozen meat industry

The New Zealand meat industry developed to service the British market. The first shipment, of 842 cases of canned meat, was in 1870, and in 1882 the first consignment of frozen carcasses was successfully shipped.

After this, exports of whole frozen lamb carcasses to the UK grew rapidly. Stock numbers increased on farms, and farmers moved from breeds that were good wool producers to those that were good for both meat and wool. The processing sector also developed – in 1882 there were three freezing works; by 1893 there were 21.

A good profit

The Dunedin carried 4,909 sheep and lamb carcasses in the first shipment of frozen meat from New Zealand to Britain. They averaged 80 pounds (36.3 kilograms) each in weight, and fetched sixpence per pound in the London market. One of the companies that shipped carcasses received 22 shillings twopence per animal after expenses – compared with the 13 shillings they would have got in New Zealand.

Loosening the ties to Britain

New Zealand sheep meat and dairy products enjoyed preferential access to the UK market through the first half of the 20th century, despite increasing competition from suppliers in other countries. However, by the 1960s it became clear that the UK would join the European Economic Community (EEC), which led to concerns that New Zealand trade would be seriously affected. The New Zealand Meat Board introduced the Lamb Market Diversification Scheme, under which meat companies had to send 22% of exports to countries with no substantial market for New Zealand lamb. However, when the UK joined the EEC in 1973 it was still a major market for NZ sheep meat.

European sheep meat tariffs

When the UK joined the EEC, New Zealand sheep meat exports were allowed preferential access as a transitional measure from 1973 to 1977, as New Zealand had voluntarily restricted exports. After 1977, meat exports were subject to the European Union’s Common External Tariff of 20%. In 1980, New Zealand agreed to limit sheep meat exports to the European Union to 245,000 tonnes, in return for a lowering of the tariff to 10%. In 1989 the preferential access was reduced to 205,000 tonnes in return for a zero tariff – then under the Uruguay Round trade agreements, the preferential access was increased to 225,000 tonnes.

Processing for export

From the beginning of the frozen meat trade until the 1970s, whole carcasses were exported. Since the 1960s, almost all beef has been exported as boneless cuts, and since the 1980s, lamb carcasses are increasingly often processed rather than shipped whole.

In the early 2000s, most meat was exported as cuts, reducing transport costs, as they require far less shipping space than carcasses.

Adding value

Processing adds value to the product and enables processors to meet the very precise specifications of supermarkets, and the requirements of consumers. The different cuts vary markedly in value, with the large muscle groups of the hindquarters and back worth more. These high-priced cuts contain less connective tissue, so are suitable for steaks and roasts. They make up around 45% of the total saleable meat in a carcass. The rest is used for stews, casseroles and mince.


Contraction of muscle fibres due to rapid chilling after slaughter (known as ‘cold-shortening’) toughens meat. This is prevented by ensuring that only low levels of muscle glycogen are present in meat before it is chilled – most easily done by electrical stimulation of the meat to cause muscle contraction and use up glycogen.

In lamb and beef cuts destined for high-priced markets, tenderness is enhanced by ageing, which causes the breakdown of muscle fibres over time. Most cuts are aged in vacuum packs to prevent weight loss by evaporation, and contamination by micro-organisms.

How to cite this page:

Alistair Nicol and Caroline Saunders, 'Meat and wool - Meat exporting history and meat processing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by Alistair Nicol and Caroline Saunders, published 24 Nov 2008