Meat processing plants have been deemed an essential service as New Zealand enters alert level 4 to fight the spread of Covid-19.

As a result, the logistics of how we get product from the farm, through processing plants and out to ships or planes and overseas has come into focus.

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There have also been reports that some meat processing workers are concerned for their safety as they continue to work during the lockdown.

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Today on The Country, Jamie Mackay asked Silver Fern Farms chief executive Simon Limmer how the meat processing plants were operating safely at alert level 4.

Mackay: Simon Limmer is the chief executive of Silver Fern Farms, formerly of Zespri of course, they are our biggest meat processing plant. Simon, I know there are some real issues in your industry at the moment, there's a lot of scaremongering and concerns. How are you guys going about getting all the stock that needs to be processed processed during this lockdown period?

Limmer: Yeah Jamie it's certainly challenging times but I think as a nation we're all facing new challenges.

So the first thing I'd say is that I think our people are really pulling together on the whole pretty well. Our first responsibility is giving them confidence that we can protect them, we can look after their welfare, that they will be safe, because that confidence is obviously essential to allowing us to keep processing.

We are an essential service and as an essential service our responsibility is to produce food. There is a lot of talk about domestic production versus international production but New Zealand doesn't live in isolation and we rely on many other countries for our medical supplies at this time. I think it's important that we recognise we need to continue to feed those countries also.

As an essential business ... our suppliers, the farmers, the welfare of their animals and their wellbeing is also dependent on us obtaining some degree of service.

So what we're done is we've adapted the practices in most of our plants. We're effectively applying what best practice is around the country in terms of creating distance between our people. A whole lot of other mitigating practices around barriers, masks, greater hygiene - just isolating people as best as we can.

But there's a flow-on effect because that's impacting the capacity of the plants probably up to somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent. But that's okay. The first and foremost is just making sure we can look after our people.

So we've been working hard over the course of the last week. We're getting to a point, in conjunction with MPI and the Ministry of Health and others that we're confident that that's happening successfully.

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Mackay: We've banned gatherings of any description. Turning up at a meat processing plant is a large public gathering in a way. I know - and I'm playing devil's advocate here - and I know that you've got separation, especially on the further-on processing and that's where it's really slowing down the chain - but is it really realistic to guarantee the safety of these people? I'm hearing two stories, because I've got mates who are freezing workers, I've got mates who are stock agents and I've got mates who are farmers - I'm getting it all sides believe you me - can we guarantee their safety? I've got the unions for instance, in my ear saying - why can't people stay home and get paid?

Limmer: Look if we can't guarantee their safety we won't keep operating - that's the simple reality. Our number one priority is that we have to look after our people.

We've been working with MPI, with the unions as well, and I've got to say that our interaction with the unions and with the industry as a whole has been really, really positive.

So as I say, there are a number of things that we can do. Slowing the chains down to that degree means that we can create greater separation. We are applying social distancing norms that the country is talking about as a whole.

Meatworks are pretty clean places also. The degree of hygiene in those places, the regularity of cleaning it is important, but we're increasing that, putting other mitigating practises in place and it's something we'll keep reviewing.

We are validated by MPI, so we don't just have an automatic licence to operate. We have to ensure that we're following procedures as they've now been deemed to be necessary.

Silver Fern Farms chief executive Simon Limmer. Photo / George Novak
Silver Fern Farms chief executive Simon Limmer. Photo / George Novak

Mackay: If our chains slow down to up to half pace, we're just going to get a bigger and bigger backlog - through no one's fault, this is an act of God - how long will it take, best case scenario to clear that backlog? And I'm looking at the farmers affected by droughts. I'm looking at the sheep farmers who have still got lots of lambs on. I'm looking at the dairy farmers who can't get rid of their culled cows. This is a perfect storm.

Limmer:

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Well if you could answer that question - and I think it's the question on everyone's mind, is how long will this last - that would be very useful.

There is an impact in terms of our ability to process livestock. That's the simple reality. The best that we can do is to continue working with our farmers to help to prioritise who is in most dire need of moving their stock.

We're also working, I think, relatively well as an industry, in that we are talking with each other - the other companies - in ensuring that we can act as one unit to the best of our ability.
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But look, I think it's just a matter of staying in contact, close contact with our farmers, understanding that their wellbeing is really important through this ... making sure that we're communicating the changes as best as we can and then adapting as we see what comes at us tomorrow.

Listen below:

Mackay: Simon one quick question for you to finish - and I want to finish on a positive if I can - and I think the positive is that our meat is still being shipped offshore - or flown off shore, there's another issue, we won't deal with that one today - but it is still receiving good prices, or relatively good prices?

Limmer: Yeah. I've been optimistic right through the last couple of months and whilst we saw the first phase with China closing down, we were fortunate to see all of the other markets responding very, very positively, and we rode out that moment in time relatively successfully.

The good news is that China's coming back on board and the demand in that market is very, very strong for all the reasons that we already know.

I guess ... the ability of the supply chain to deliver to those markets is still something that we're watching.

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My view is that we just have a moment in time here that we just have to work our way through and once we come through the back end and things start to stabilise again -overall we're very well placed. The demand for our product, in my view, the safe, quality, integrity of what we produce out of New Zealand will never be better at the back end of this.

Mackay: Simon Limmer, thank you very much for your time in these trying times and it's nice to finish on a positive note, keep up the good work.

Limmer: Thanks Jamie.