Greenlea beef export boss Tony Egan knows more than many there's nothing funny about the coronavirus but he has to wonder about his choice of a tape measure customer gift for the now-abandoned Fieldays.

Landed with 1000 of the things ordered months ago and carrying Greenlea's logo, he wonders if they could be just the tool now for social distancing.

The Waikato company managing director planned to give them to farmer customers along with hospitality at Greenlea's Fieldays stand in June.

The Southern Hemisphere's biggest agribusiness event which generates more than $500 million a year for the New Zealand economy was cancelled for 2020 before any alert system was announced.

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Egan, whose family-owned company is classed as an essential industry as a major food producer during the pandemic lockdown, said the tape measures would be given away with online home delivery meat orders, a relatively young sideline business which has doubled sales in the past two weeks.

Egan said sales have been to households across the country and included a high number of older people and accommodation guests who were presumably nervous about going out to eat but had cooking facilities.

Sales to grocers had also been brisk, with retailers reporting meat flying out of the chiller.

Couriers had assured Greenlea they could keep delivering during the lockdown.

"Anything could happen and everything is a little uncertain but at this stage feeding people is important and we are doing that," Egan said.

Meanwhile, he said Greenlea, like other food companies operating line processing systems and considered essential services, was coming to grips with the challenging task of safely segregating workers and continuing without a full workforce.

Some workers were in home situations where they simply could not turn out for work in the lockdown, he said.

"There are things we can do to help spread the labour force in the knowledge that not everyone can come to work every day. We have a core of staff who are doing a tremendous job."

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Egan said while the company was officially an essential industry, the Government put the onus on it to ensure staff abided by lockdown rules when they went home.

"It's been made very clear to us by MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries) that it is our responsibility to ensure staff understand that although we are an essential industry, when they go home they are just as much part of the general response as everyone else and we need to have assurances from them they are complying.

"We have staff located to ask questions when people arrive at work as well.

"There's not a get-out-of-jail card just because you're an essential industry. There are a lot of strings attached."

Egan said it was also important that Greenlea's farmer customers - many of whom under pressure to quit livestock because of drought - realised that even though their processor was an essential service, this did not come without responsibilities.

"Across the board we are having to slow our chain and change our shift patterns to keep clear segregation of people and distancing.

"There are material impacts on our capacity as processors, but on the brighter side we are able to remain open and keep kills more current that they would otherwise have been in drought time.

"There are signs markets are maintaining their stability in terms of fundamental demand for protein so there are some logistics challenges depending on the countries (markets) involved and we are managing at this stage.

"There is a pathway through this problem if we keep our heads."

Greenlea employs more than 360 people across two plants in Hamilton and Morrinsville.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website