Meat Industry Association bosses on the ups and downs of the sector

Totara Estate, the birthplace of the country’s frozen meat industry. Photo / Christine O’Connor

Last week, the Chief Executive of the Meat Industry Association, Sirma Karapeeva, visited North Otago, the birthplace of New Zealand’s frozen meat industry. She talks to Sally Rae, business and campaign editor of the Otago Daily Times, about the state of the red meat sector.

It’s time to celebrate.

This is the message from Meat Industry Association CEO Sirma Karapeeva to all levels of the red meat sector, from the farming community to processors and other industry organizations.

Karapeeva was in Oamaru last week for a ceremony marking National Lamb Day, the 140th anniversary of the first consignment of frozen lamb from New Zealand that arrived in the UK in 1882 and the centenary of the Meat Board from New Zealand.

Everyone in the industry needed to speak out more and celebrate the “real things” – “not just necessarily wins in Wellington…good things happening”, she said.

Since taking office in April 2020, amid the first Covid-19 outbreak, it has been a baptism of fire for Karapeeva.

MIA is the voluntary trade association representing New Zealand’s red meat processors, distributors and exporters.

Prior to her appointment to the top job, Karapeeva was MIA’s commercial and economic director, having joined the association in 2015.

While this baptism of fire hadn’t subsided – “we’re not done yet, who knows what’s next?” – she had found it invigorating.

“Maybe because I have this more positive outlook on life in general. With every challenge, there’s an opportunity,” she said.

Having such a good team around her had also made things much easier and she was happy to be in this role at a pretty crucial time in the history of the industry.

The pandemic has triggered various changes and it was exciting to be a part of it, she said.

For the companies themselves, it had almost been the impetus to take the next step in their development and evolution.

She cited Silver Fern Farms and its zero-carbon beef, launched in the United States last week by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

The Transformers had done “remarkable things” keeping their channels and businesses running to continue during the pandemic and Karapeeva was especially proud of them.

There seemed to be no end in sight to global supply chain and logistics issues.

In March, chilled sheepmeat exports to the UK fell by 80% year-on-year, reflecting continuing logistical problems with transporting chilled products.

But there were also plenty of positives from Covid-19, including a reconnection with whole foods, including red meat.

Sirma Karapeeva, General Director of the Meat Industry Association.  Photo / Provided
Sirma Karapeeva, General Director of the Meat Industry Association. Photo / Provided

Before the pandemic, there had been a notion that alternative proteins were “going to be the savior of the world”, but now people were questioning the ingredients that went into these products and it was a “real positive”.

Prices and demand were both strong at the moment, but the labor situation was difficult.

“I can’t overstate how difficult it was,” she said.

Processors have shown resilience and done all sorts of “really cool things” to retain labour, from adding shifts to longer shifts and paying higher rates than normal to attract and retain workers.

However, the industry was competing in such a tight pool – “everyone is stealing from each other” – and it had been really tough.

In April, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced that the government’s previous border exception for 150 meat processors had been fully subscribed and that he was extending the provision to 500 additional workers.

While that was fine “in the grand scheme of things”, Karapeeva wondered how long it would take Immigration New Zealand to process these applications.

If those extra workers haven’t come for six months, then “what’s the point?” she said.

A new member of the MIA team was a workforce development strategist working on a new strategy to attract, train and retain staff.

For some time there has been work around micro-degrees, encouraging workers to obtain qualifications, but in a flexible way and reflecting the needs of the workforce.

This was in addition to recognition of prior on-the-job learning – if someone had undergone training, for example, in health and safety in the poultry industry, then those skills could be transferable to the meat.

Hopefully the new strategic plan will show New Zealanders and the government that an investment has been made in the future of the industry by investing in its workforce and that automation was not going to replace all the world, Karapeeva said.

Plans being developed to use artificial intelligence to do jobs like some meat inspectors would not replace real meat inspectors, but augment and support their work to make it easier, she said.

MIA Senior Director of Strategy, Trade Policy and Advocacy Esther Guy-Meakin, who was also in Oamaru, understood that talks had intensified regarding a free trade agreement with the European Union – New Zealand’s fourth largest trading partner with two-way trade in goods and services at over $15 billion a year.

The next few weeks would be very important. The MIA was working closely with the Ministry of Primary Industries and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to support these negotiations.

“It’s obviously an incredibly important deal, especially on the beef side – that’s where the opportunities are, [and] it is also where the most difficult conversations will take place.

“I hope the EU puts its money where it is and commits to something high quality…and commercially meaningful for both parties. From what we’ve seen so far, I don’t have a lot of confidence in that,” she said.

Karapeeva said trade was “the way the world feeds itself”. The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has highlighted food security issues.

MIA was very concerned about certain aspects of the proposed system of fair wage agreements and how they would affect the sector.

Potentially various incentive payments would be cut and she wondered “why would anyone do more than their next door neighbour?”.

Although much has been said about moving from volume to value, she wondered how it would happen without a productive and engaging workforce.

MIA was working with Business NZ on the matter and had made submissions. He had also requested to appear before the select committee to raise his concerns.

Guy-Meakin said the loss of flexibility was something MIA saw as a drag on innovation in an industry where innovation had been a real hallmark, especially over the past 20 to 30 years.

Both women highlighted the innovation involved in sending the first shipment of frozen meat to the UK in 1882.

They worried about the impact of removing flexibility and incentives within the industry to reward creativity, which fostered innovation.

Andrew B. Reiter