Given the chance Royce Tunbridge would do it all over again.

Last Friday Mr Tunbridge retired as a meat inspector after 53 years in the job, a job that allowed the freedom to pursue other activities.

He began in the job as a fresh face 16-year-old in 1964 and understood to be the youngest AMI (Assistant Meat Inspector) on the then Ministry of Agriculture books. He did his on-the-job training at Imlay with the odd stint at the then Tenderkist plant in Castlecliff and the old adjacent Wanganui Abattoir.

To finally qualify an AMI had to be in the job for at least two years and have successfully passed a three month course at Lincoln University in Christchurch.

Advertisement

"I started at Imlay on April 29, 1964 and by August that year I was at Lincoln. The Lincoln course was added after pressure from international markets wanting proof our meat products were safe and inspected properly," Mr Tunbridge recalled.

"In the old days we didn't have vets on plant, it was just us inspectors. We did quite comprehensive training learning the physical, biological and chemical make up of the animals our meat industry dealt with. The training was right up there with things nurses deal with early in their training."

Today, extremely stringent rules dictate what can and cannot be done within the confines of meat processing plants, but it was not always that way.

"In my early days freezing workers still wore black singlets, black gumboots and were allowed to smoke on the processing floors. We only inspected the carcasses in those days, the viscera (internal organs) were just chucked on the floor. Today we know the entrails provide the first tell-tale sign something is wrong with an animal."

Soon Mr Tunbridge and his meat inspector workmates were working under the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) banner, then MAF Quality and finally Asure Quality, the Government-owned non-profit unit that runs the show today.

"The industry is nothing like it was when I started and things have changed mostly for the better, driven by the demands of our international trading partners. When we began trading with the United States seriously vets were introduced to processing plants overseeing the work we did. The first vet I worked under was the late Randall Elliott, who divided his time between Imlay, the abattoir and the works in Patea."

Mr Tunbridge also recalls major fires that destroyed Tenderkist and the abattoirs.

"I remember I was at the North versus South rugby match at Spriggens Park in the late 1970s and JB Phillips announced over the microphone that any Ratana volunteer firefighters at the match should go immediately to the main gate, an engine was ready to take them to the Tenderkist fire. People laughed thinking it was a joke until they looked towards Castlecliff where big black plumes of smoke were bellowing into the sky."

Back in the day meat processing was virtually an 8 month a year operation when a lack of stock supply forced plants to close for up to four months. Today, of course it is almost a year-round occupation.

"We had a thing called the Bullshit Sheet and if we were rostered on a half day, four hours got recorded beside your name in the sheet and the next early the first to go off was the guy who had the least hours. It was sacrilege to tamper with the Bullshit Sheet and it caused so many arguments. Once it was stolen from Imlay and never found - we had to start all over again."

The early days allowed meat inspectors ample time to pursue other part-time employment or involve themselves in other activities.

Mr Tunbridge used his time off to work part time, but also to carry out his duties as president of the St Johns Club. He has just been re-elected for his fifth term and his ninth year as president. Before that he was vice-president four fours years and has now spent a total of 14 years on the executive. He was also chairman of the Wanganui Rugby Union.

"The time off as a meat inspector has kept me sane. It can be a mindless occupation at times and it's easy to become brain dead, but I'd happily do it all again if I got the chance."

With the club's 125th jubilee looming next year and the upcoming Clubs New Zealand conference in Whanganui, Mr Tunbridge will have no time to vegetate. He is also a life member and former president of the Aramoho Bowling Club and the greens beckon this summer.