Thursday, August 18, 2022

Red meat’s eventful pathway to success

The highest export prices in history are helpful to farmers to commemorate the centenary of the New Zealand Meat Board in 2022.

If they need a refresher course on how the meat industry arrived at such lofty heights, Meeting Change: the NZ Red Meat Story 1997-2022, written by Ali Spencer and Mick Calder, will suffice.

Spencer and Calder are the ideal authors, having lived through most reformulations of industry bodies and their strategic plans.

Although it covers in-depth only the most recent 25 years, 1997 to 2022, the book recalls the eventful evolutionary path of meat processing companies and producer organisations.

“It never ceases to surprise me how much has changed in such a short space of time,” Calder says.

Changes of ownership, substantial financial losses, lobbying for government intervention, overseas investment and divestment, antagonistic workplace relations, prolonged trade talks and ginger groups born out of farmer despair are all recorded.

In this writer’s working lifetime, the meat industry has gone from bartering frozen mutton carcases for Iranian oil to $40/kg in-market prices for French lamb racks in the United States.

From the 1982 centenary of frozen lamb shipments, marked by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon at Totara Estate, when the Meat Producers’ Board was a single-desk seller, to robotic automation on processing chains.

From Muldoon’s skinny sheep policy and the resulting 70 million flock and $1/kg schedule prices, to $10/kg today.

As the book reminds, the pace of change has accelerated and will by no means ease off while NZ aspires to zero-carbon red meat production and on-farm emissions reductions.

Our second-largest primary exporting industry has a cast of tens of thousands and its officers are all name-checked in Meeting Change.

The book is valuable in sorting out the alphabet soup of acronyms, many of which have been discarded now.

Product and market developments are richly covered and the sterling work of the Beef + Lamb Marketing Bureau under Rod Slater featured within.

In the 1980s it was common to have consumers complain about the eating quality of their meat purchases, especially toughness.

The Quality Mark assurance scheme and the Iron Maidens marketing campaigns revolutionised taste and tenderness on the home market.

The anti-red meat consumption arguments never seem to go away but simply shift from vegetarianism to health concerns to climate change on the whim of the accusers.

“It never ceases to surprise me how much has changed in such a short space of time.”

Mick Calder
Joint author

The market development efforts of the Meat Board and Beef + Lamb New Zealand have always been hard to evaluate and the meat exporters have now taken on that task.

More measurable, often through the excellent work of the Economic Service, have been the industry-good efforts in genetics, greenhouse gas emissions, farm management, farm assurance and market access.

The collaboration between Beef + Lamb NZ and the Meat Industry Association is now exemplary and avoids the personality clashes that used to provide copy for agricultural journalists.

If farmers want a summary of what has been achieved in their red meat industry over the past 25 years, turn to page 366 and the table headed Years of Productivity.

Total meat export returns have doubled, sheep and beef farm profit before tax rose 156%, lamb returns have more than trebled, meat production up 34% in kilograms per hectare.

And that first iconic cargo item on the The Dunedin in 1882, the frozen lamb carcase, still 90% of exports when Muldoon ruled the roost, has now fallen under 2%.

Copies: Meeting Change will be released in late June by Mary Egan Publishing and is only available here or via sales@meetingchange.nz.

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