Coronavirus: Farmers feel the pressure as pandemic slows meat processing

There's increasing concern from meat and farming sector leaders about the impact of the slowed processing capacity at the country's meatworks due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

Meat companies are classified as an essential service under lockdown, however they must operate under strict health and safety rules to stop the spread of the virus.

Restrictions include workers standing at least two metres apart, which has meant a slower processing chain, and a drop in productivity.

Representatives from the meat and farm sectors addressed the Government's Epidemic Response Committee on Wednesday to update it on the impact of the pandemic.

The committee is a group of 11 MPs, the majority of whom are in Opposition, who meet via video conference with the purpose of holding the Government to account on its coronavirus response. 

Federated Farmers president Katie Milne told the MPs the double whammy of drought and reduced capacity at meat processing works meant many farmers were carrying into the colder months more stock than they would wish, and feed was very tight

Katie Milne updates the committee on how farmers are coping in the lockdown.
Katie Milne updates the committee on how farmers are coping in the lockdown. Photo credit: Newshub

"Meat that was getting $5-something a kilo is now bringing in $3, if we can get it off the farm. The milk returns (per kg of milk solids) had $7 in front of it this year but there are predictions next year it will be $5," Milne said. 

While the sector was working as hard as it could to keep things going, "farming will not come out of this unscathed," she said.

Meat Industry Association CEO, Tim Ritchie said meat processors were committed to ensuring the safety of the sector's 25,000 workers and not being a vector for the spread of the virus.

However, he said the implications had been a significant drop in productivity.

"Beef has reduced by 30 percent, sheep by 50 percent and venison has slowed by about 75 percent," said Ritchie.

"The key now is how can we lift that throughput with prejudicing that worker safety."

He said companies had been looking about how they might innovate to increase production, including with longer shifts.

"But the central key will be adjusting the two-metre distance combined with PPE as informed by science.

"Now we have things bedding down and working properly we can look forward to how we can unlock some of that capacity."

He said processors were working as hard as they could to increase with some major companies looking to work through the Easter break.

Ritchie described the collaboration with the Government, through MPI as excellent, as they worked through the issue.