Keep driving innovation, meat sector leader says

Totara Estate, the birthplace of the country’s frozen meat industry. PHOTO: CHRISTINE O’CONNOR
Totara Estate, the birthplace of the country’s frozen meat industry. PHOTO: CHRISTINE O’CONNOR
Last week, Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva visited North Otago, the birthplace of New Zealand’s frozen meat industry. She talks to business and rural editor Sally Rae  about the state of the red meat sector.

It is time to celebrate.

That is the message from Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva to all levels of the red meat sector, from the farming community through to processors and other industry organisations.

Ms Karapeeva was in Oamaru last week for a function to mark National Lamb Day, the 140th anniversary of the first shipment of frozen New Zealand lamb arriving in the United Kingdom in 1882, and the centenary of the New Zealand Meat Board.

Those throughout the industry needed to be more vocal and celebrate "real things" — "not just necessarily wins in Wellington ... good things that are happening", she said.

Since taking on the role in April 2020, in the middle of the first outbreak of Covid-19, it has been a baptism of fire for Ms Karapeeva.

MIA is the voluntary trade association representing New Zealand’s red meat processors, marketers and exporters.

Before her appointment to the top job, Ms Karapeeva was MIA’s trade and economic manager, having joined the association in 2015.

While that baptism of fire had not eased off — "we’re not finished yet, who knows what the next thing is?" — she had found it invigorating.

"Maybe because I have this more positive outlook on life generally. With every challenge there is an opportunity," she said.

Having such a good team around her had also made it much easier and she was pleased to be in the role at what was quite a crucial moment in the sector’s history.

The pandemic had started various changes and it was exciting to be part of that, she said.

For the companies themselves, it had been almost the impetus to take the next step in their development and evolution.

She cited the likes of Silver Fern Farms and its zero-carbon beef, launched in the United States last week by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Processors had done "remarkable things" with operating their chains and businesses to keep going during the pandemic and Ms Karapeeva was particularly proud of them.

There appeared to be no end in sight to the supply chain and logistics issues globally.

In March, chilled sheepmeat exports to the UK fell by 80% year on year, reflecting the ongoing logistics issues with transporting chilled product.

Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
But there had also been a lot of positives from Covid-19, including a reconnection with wholefoods, including red meat.

Before the pandemic, there had been a notion that alternative proteins were "going to be the saviour of the world", but now people were questioning the ingredients going into those products and that was a "real positive".

Prices and demand were both strong at the moment but the labour situation was tough.

"I can’t overestimate how difficult it has been," she said.

Processors had been resilient and done all sorts of "really interesting things" to retain labour, from adding shifts to longer shifts and paying above normal rates to attract and retain workers.

However, the industry was competing in such a tight pool — "everybody’s robbing from each other" — and it had been really tough.

In April, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced the Government’s previous border exception for 150 meat processors was fully subscribed and it was expanding the provision by an additional 500 workers.

While that was good "in the great scheme of things", Ms Karapeeva questioned how long it was going to take for Immigration New Zealand to process those applications.

If those additional workers did not come for six months, then "What’s the point?", she said.

A new team member at MIA was a workforce development strategist who was working on a new strategy for attracting, training and retaining staff.

For some time, work had been done around micro-credentials, encouraging workers to get qualifications, but in a flexible way and reflective of what the workforce needed.

That was along with recognition of prior learning at work — if someone had done training, for instance, in health and safety in the poultry industry, then those skills might be transferable to the meat industry.

Hopefully, the new strategic plan would show New Zealanders and the Government that an investment was being made in the future of the industry by investing in its workforce, and that automation was not going to replace everyone, Ms Karapeeva said.

Projects being worked on to use artificial intelligence to do the likes of some meat inspector work would not replace actual meat inspectors, but augment and support their work to make it easier, she said.

MIA strategy, trade policy and advocacy senior manager Esther Guy-Meakin, who was also in Oamaru, understood discussions had intensified regarding a free trade agreement with the European Union — New Zealand’s fourth-largest trading partner with two-way goods and services trade at over $15billion a year.

The next few weeks would be very important. MIA was working closely with the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to support those negotiations.

"It’s obviously an incredibly important agreement, particularly on the beef side — that’s where the opportunities lie, [and] it’s also where the most difficult conversations will be, too.

"Hopefully, the EU puts their money where their mouth is and they commit to something that is high quality ... and commercially meaningful for both sides. From what we’ve seen to date, I don’t have a huge amount of confidence in that," she said.

Ms Karapeeva said trade was "how the world feeds itself". The Ukraine-Russia conflict had highlighted food security issues.

MIA was very worried about aspects of the proposed fair pay agreement system and how they would affect the sector.

Potentially, various incentive payments would be scrapped and she questioned "why would anyone be doing more than their neighbour next door?".

While much was made about moving from volume to value, she questioned how that would be done without a productive, incentivised workforce.

MIA was working with Business NZ on the issue and had made submissions. It had also asked to appear before the select committee to set out its concerns.

Ms Guy-Meakin said loss of flexibility was something MIA saw as holding back innovation in a sector where innovation had been a real feature, particularly over the past 20 to 30 years.

Both women pointed out the innovation involved in dispatching the first shipment of frozen meat to the UK back in 1882.

They were concerned about the impact of removing flexibility and incentives within the industry to reward creativity, which fostered innovation.


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