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Pork chops versus people

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Tom Belford11 May 2020

If you need a reminder of how lucky you are to live in New Zealand, just read this article in today’s NY Times, titled:  Pork Chops vs People: Battling Coronavirus in an Iowa Meat Plant.

This tells you everything you need to know about corporate greed and Presidential idiocy in the US.

The article focuses on a Tyson Foods processing plant in Iowa, normally producing 4% of America’s entire pork output.

As the virus reared its head, after a visit by the local sheriff and a request by local health officials, the company at first refused to close. After an 8-day delay, they did.

But it seems that America can’t live without its pork chops, so President Trump by executive order declared that such facilities must remain open … giving new and graphic meaning to ‘pork barrel politics’. So the plant re-opened.

And now there are 1,031 infections, one-third of the plant’s workers, some on incubators, three dead so far.

The company says that, in hindsight, they might have behaved differently. Yeah, right!

Pivot to New Zealand.

Here, the meat industry responded to the same set of circumstances. Processing is close-quarters work, and health safety requirements, such as spacing workers, meant that productivity suffered as much as 50% in NZ’s facilities.

And the situation was made worse by drought, which meant farmers were more eager than usual to get their animals off the land and to the processing plants.

But the proper measures were in fact implemented, and the industry is now virtually back to normal.

As it happens, the chairman of the Meat Industry Assn of New Zealand, John Loughlin, lives here in Hawke’s Bay. I asked him to comment about the industry response to the virus threat. Here’s what he had to say (edited for brevity) …

“The US meat industry is a heavily domestic industry with the industry set up to feed the local population of 330 million people. Many US meat processors are tightly integrated into just in time local supply chains that service the foodservice sector. Many plants are very specialised and flexibility has not been needed and has not been consciously “engineered in”.

“In New Zealand our meat companies have been classified as essential operations and have continued to operate most of their sites with reduced staffing and associated reduced hourly throughput. The reduced staffing has been necessary to achieve social distancing in the workplace. The plants have operated at much lower levels of efficiency and higher unit costs. The companies have worn many of these costs. A few sites have not been able to operate due to very tight physical conditions or due to specialist nature of production e.g. specialist products such as burger patties for foodservice. Many New Zealand companies have run longer hours including in some cases overtime and/or working on statutory days to help farmers manage animal welfare issues during a particularly dry autumn. Autumn is generally a time when farmers significantly lower stocking numbers in preparation for winter.

“New Zealand meat companies have only recorded three cases of covid-19 from members of staff. All these cases were traced to sources outside the various workplaces and there have been no cases of infection being transmitted within plants. All plants have managed “bubble” groups of employees and tracing systems as part of the safe work requirements of Alert Level 4 covid-19 responses. Consequently, externally sourced infections have not led to whole of site closures for more than a couple of days and only for testing confirmations.

“The New Zealand meat industry has not shed permanent jobs. Prior to the covid-19 crisis the industry was about 2,000 workers short nationwide. There will be new careers of various types in the meat industry for people who are searching for new job opportunities.

“The New Zealand meat industry is predominantly an export industry. Covid-19 has led to many changes in markets and disruptions in the logistics chains that reach points of sale. Around the world people have continued to eat but have shifted their purchases from wet markets and foodservice to supermarkets, high-end retail and online. Chinese demand was depressed in late January and early February after record prices before that. The Chinese market has re-emerged in March as the US market turned down. New Zealand meat companies have overcome many marketing challenges in early 2020 and will no doubt be facing more as we progress.”

In fact, the NZ meat industry has in March exceeded $1 billion in red meat exports for the first time, up 12% over March last year. While export values to China did drop, these were overtaken by gains in Britain, Germany and Malaysia. And now the Chinese market is coming back.

The NZ meat industry appears to be smart, agile and — in this test — responsible. Good on them!

I can already sense the daggers coming from a heap of readers who are not at all keen on meat diets, including two women in my own household!

But I find it impossible to look at the stunning contrast between the responses of the US and NZ industries and not as a matter of pride want to go out and buy a NZ (even better, Hawke’s Bay) steak! A pork roast would do nicely too.

Hello Level 2 … Organic Farms Butchery in Hastings, here I come!

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Tom Belford11 May 2020

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