The taxpayer-funded Covid-19 wage subsidy programme has paid $101 million to meat companies, a sector allowed to keep working in lockdown and reporting record export sales.
Herald inquiries show the money was paid to 13 businesses.
The largest claimants were Silver Fern Farms, paid $43.2m for 6161 employees, Alliance Group which received $34.3m for 4913 staff, and the ANZCO group of companies which got $17.3m for 2478 employees.
The $101m was for 13,552 of the meat industry's estimated 22,000 employees.
Several smaller meat companies have also been paid subsidies but some large industry players have not applied. They include Affco, Greenlea and Hellaby which between them employ more than 6000 people.
Monthly meat exports were valued at a record $1 billion in March, the Meat Industry Association has reported.
Total red meat exports for the month were worth $1.1b, up 12 per cent on March last year.
The large payments to Silver Fern Farms, Alliance and ANZCO have caused anger in the meat industry and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor has repeated that he expects a "fair and honest audit" of their claims by the meat companies.
"I've had discussions with a couple of them and they've assured me they are working through to pay back what they haven't used, which is reassuring.
"I've spoken to Alliance and I know Silver Fern Farms have said the same to officials on that."
Asked by the Herald whether he expected a large part of the payments to be repaid given the current strong earnings of the meat industry, O'Connor said: "I would expect quite an amount of repayment given we have been working with the industry to as quickly as possible get full capacity up and running."
When approached recently by the Herald about repayment, Silver Fern Farms and Alliance said they were working through whether they still met the criteria for eligibility for the wage subsidy.
Japanese-owned ANZCO has been approached for comment.
The criteria for wage subsidy eligibility is a business must have experienced a minimum 30 per cent Covid-19-related decline in actual or predicted revenue over the period of a month, or 30 days, when compared with the same period last year.
MSD has confirmed to the Herald that claimants do not have to specify the month.
The current programme which has so far paid out $10.4b, ends next month. Last week's Budget provided for a $3.2b extension of the scheme for eight weeks for businesses which had suffered a 50 per cent decline in revenue.
O'Connor was not aware that meat industry claims totalled $101m. "That is quite a large amount."
Defences of wage subsidy claims he'd heard from meat companies included having at risk staff aged 70 and over and staff who couldn't work because their families depended on them.
Claimants said these people would've had to be laid off if not for the wage subsidy.
O'Connor said industry unions had assured him the claims were justified.
"However the total quantum is something that has yet to be finalised".
His message to the primary sector on claiming in the extended wage subsidy period?
"It is the Government's intention that it is more targeted to those in real need and my assessment of most across the primary sector, and that includes forestry, at this point, is they are going gangbusters and knocking on my door to get assistance to get more people working in their sectors."
Herald inquiries show livestock companies, agents for cattle and sheep buying and selling, claimed $2.3m in wage subsidies.
O'Connor said while there had been temporary disruption to agents' incomes at the start of the Covid-19 national emergency response, online services had been developed and livestock had been traded through agents.
"So again the round up and audit of this whole scheme should ensure quite an amount of money is paid back given livestock has to be moved whether they are moved sooner or later."
O'Connor said he was surprised that some large farmers and traders in Southland had claimed "large amounts of money" and that a shearing contracting company had claimed almost $1m.
Primary sector claimants who had been able to continue operating as an essential service "need to look very carefully when it comes to round up and audit" of their claims, he said.