Trying to maintain safety protocols and reassuring workers concerned about Covid-19 remains a top priority for Silver Fern Farms, says chief executive Simon Limmer.

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

Covid 19 coronavirus: The issues facing the meat industry

So far only one of Silver Fern Farms' plants has been affected, a Southland venison plant related to the cluster around a pre-lockdown wedding in Bluff.


"We've worked our way through that ... we've gone through the tracking process, we've worked very closely with the Ministry of Health on that and our expectation is we'll be back up and running next week."

Limmer said he was talking regularly with other meat-processing companies to "find solutions on behalf of the whole primary sector, because we recognise that we're in this together".

Most companies were operating to "varying degrees of capacity" and were all adhering to protocols "particularly around social distancing", said Limmer. The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

As a result, just about all plants had "dialled back the speed of the chains".

"It's just a changed working environment that we find ourselves in."

The way they were configured made it easier to practise social distancing at beef-processing plants, said Limmer.

"Beef typically has a little bit more space between the workers so hasn't been impacted quite as much as some of the lamb plants so beef productivity might be not quite back as far as lamb productivity, but still very early days."


Limmer estimated most plants were operating at 30 to 50 per cent reduction of capacity but it was "hard to put a number on it" at this stage.

"Everyone's taken a really strong response to implementing the new protocols and now we're just trying to work out where those bottlenecks are and how we can make sure that we're being productive as we can."

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

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Workers' safety concerns over being an essential service were "understandable" in the early stages of the lockdown, said Limmer.

"I think we all struggled just to work out what it meant. What lockdown meant and what ... the new operating environment for essential services [meant].

"But I can tell you that everyone's primary focus is on their people at the moment.

"We absolutely have to provide them with confidence that we can keep them and their families safe."

Silver Fern Farms had been talking closely with its people and "demonstrating the changes that we've made", said Limmer.

"It's fair to say that they recognise that, as an essential service, the role that they play for New Zealanders is really critical, and I've got to say that there's some fantastic stories out there - they really are heroes a lot of them."

There was still talk about working through Easter due to a backlog of livestock building up though the autumn season, but it was just as important for people to get a break, said Limmer.

"Ultimately I think we'll be better off by just keeping to the rhythm that we typically have. Respecting that family time for the people and coming back fresh the week after Easter and getting back into it then."

Also in today's interview: Limmer talked about how falling commodity prices and increased compliance costs could affect New Zealand's farmers.