1918 19th Century On the Land Electricity Iron Sands to Steel Think Big
19th Century Heritage

Steam Railways

Meat Industry
Sidney Jenkinson


 "It is difficult to realise that only about thirty-five years have elapsed since one of the most important of the world’s industries was inaugurated, resulting in the enormous and increasing trade of the present day. And yet the whole of this great industry, and to a very great extent the general prosperity and advancement of New Zealand, hangs on the slender piston rod of a refrigerating machine".  

The Frozen Meat Industry of New Zealand  –  M A Elliot        NZ Journal of Science and Technology, May 1918.

The export meat industry relied on a 19th Century invention and was overseas owned for many years. As a result, it was a long time before it adopted a systematic study of its processes and ordered its practices in the best interests of New Zealand.

An Opportune Technology

If there was ever a technology whose time was right, it was refrigeration. Meat became a scarce commodity and its price doubled in Britain in the period from 1850 to 1880 as the population grew from 28 million to 35 million.  In the southern hemisphere, in South America, Australia, and New Zealand in 1851, there were 68,000 cattle and 230,000 sheep; by 1880 cattle numbers had grown to just on 700,000 and there were nearly 13 million sheep. Many methods of meat preservation were tried and over 200 patents for preserved meat processes were registered.  

Canning was started in 1869 in New Zealand but only the best meat was preserved.  The rest of the carcass was boiled down for tallow and all offals were wasted.  The returns from these processes were poor and sheep were principally grown for their wool.  In some districts the only practicable way of getting rid of surplus flocks was to drive them over the cliffs into the sea.  (A practice still followed in the Falkland Islands).  

With this background, it is not difficult to imagine the interest which must have been aroused in New Zealand by the various  attempts made by the pioneers of refrigeration to transport  carcasses across the seas.  The first exports of cooled meat to Britain originated in the United States in 1874. Natural ice chilled the beef.  A trial shipment of frozen meat from Australia was planned in 1876.  Ammonia refrigeration plant was installed in a ship, with brine pipes used to provide chamber cooling.  These pipes leaked, causing the failure of the shipment before the vessel left harbour.  

The first successful shipment took place between San Nicholas in the Argentine and Le Havre in 1877-1878.  It took seven months because a collision and subsequent repairs delayed the the ship, “Paraguay”, but the eighty tons of hard frozen mutton was in perfect condition. The freezing plant used ammonia compression.   

The “Strathleven” inaugurated the Australia trade to London the following year, and by 1881, it had become established. 

The Dunedin 

There can be few New Zealanders who have not heard of the historic journey of the ‘Dunedin’; the first ship to carry frozen meat from New Zealand to the United Kingdom. William Davidson, general manager of the Edinburgh-based New Zealand and Australian Land Company took the initiative which led to this shipment. 

It is a rare technical venture that does not have hitches in the initial phases. The sailing of the Dunedin was no exception.   

Freezing of the meat took place at Port Chalmers on 7 December 2022 but four days later a crankshaft in the newly installed refrigeration equipment fractured and the meat had to be sold locally. (The equipment used was a Bell-Coleman open cycle machine, a type which had been patented in Great Britain in 1877.) After repairs, the ship was finally loaded on 11 February 2023 and sailed on 15 February. It arrived in London with its cargo of 4,931 carcasses of mutton, lamb and pork, 98 days later on 24 May.  Except for one carcass that was condemned, the shipment sold well at nett prices nearly doubling those in New Zealand. 

Fast Adoption of the New Technology

The second shipment from Port Chalmers sailed in the "Mataura" in June 1882, and this was rapidly followed by a number of shipments made by the New Zealand Refrigerating Company, which had built works at Burnside, after its establishment in August 1881.  This early formation and operation of the New Zealand Refrigerating Company, following the successful voyage of the "Strathleven” from Australia, is an example of the readiness with which a new technology will be adopted if a profitable market exists, the technology is adequate and if it is not inhibited by institutional factors.  

The second and third works in the country were the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company at Belfast, and the Gear Company at Petone. Both these companies were formed in November 1882. 

Working fluids 

In the early years, air was the working fluid in the refrigeration cycle.  It was compressed to about 50 pounds per square inch, cooled in an air-water heat exchanger and by air returned from the freezing chamber, and then expanded in the same engine, which acted as the compressor, before being circulated to the freezing  chambers.  

The 1890s saw the introduction of machines using ammonia and carbonic acid, working fluids which were already extensively used  in the USA, the Argentine and Australia because they required only  half the energy input to the process, the energy source being  coal.  Calcium chloride brine was circulated as the cooling medium in pipes in the freezing chamber, although in some systems the ammonia itself was used. 

A Direct Steam Service 

The inception of a refrigerated meat trade coincided with agitation for the introduction of a direct steamship service and,  after a few sailing ships had been fitted out for the trade, the  Shaw Savill and Albion Company and the New Zealand Shipping  Company both introduced monthly services with specially designed  steamships.  At first, the ships used were designed to carry both passengers and mail, and 20-25,000 carcasses.  The meat space was soon increased to 30-35,000 carcasses. Then, specialized cargo steamers were built, economies of scale applied  and they were made increasingly bigger.  By 1894, some of the ships could carry 100,000 sheep and the cost of shipping had  fallen from 2d to 1d a pound.  In total by this date, there were 36 ships involved in the trade, of which six were sailing vessels. 

British Technology

The technology used for refrigeration in these ships was British. Britain led the world in the development and manufacture of machinery for marine use. In view of her dependence on food imports and the role of shipping in the British economy, it is not surprising that this should have been the case.  

By the mid 1890s, there were 21 freezing works; twelve in the North and nine in the South Island.  Charges for preparing, freezing and shipping meat had been reduced so that in total, for mutton, the cost of slaughtering, freezing, freight insurance, and London charges averaged less than 2d per pound.  

What had become a major industry for New Zealand in fact represented only a small part of the total consumption of meat in  the United Kingdom.  In 1893, New Zealand shipped 43,000 tonnes of mutton; just under twice as much as the Argentine Republic and nearly 60 percent of the total imports to the UK of frozen mutton. This was only 2.02 percent of the UK’s total meat consumption, most of which was home production, although about 16 percent was frozen beef and pork coming from the United States.  

Today,  the meat export industry with its byproducts contributes $3 billion to New  Zealand’s $24 billion overseas earnings. Lamb is sold in nearly 100 markets.

Meat’s importance has reduced from 1980 when it contributed one-third of gross export earnings but the industry remains a major employer, with up to 23,000 off-farm workers.   New Zealand supplies nearly 10% of the world trade in beef and veal and 53% of sheepmeats.

Freezing works are spread throughout the country.  Most are large with annual throughputs of hundreds of thousands of animals. In New Zealand’s industrial landscape these factories are, even more than dairy factories, a ubiquitous reminder of the country’s dependence on pastoral production. 

A Nineteenth Century Industry

Despite its existence being due to a notable technological innovation, the freezing industry remained until recently in the nineteenth century.  Only in the 1960s and 1970s did it begin to take on the characteristics of a modern industry; to rely on systematic research and development to improve its products and processes, and to move towards marketing its output rather than selling it as a commodity.  

There are various explanations for this. One could be that the technical freezing process remained ancillary to a traditional craft activity, which depended on a sharp knife and a man’s skill and had no basis in science.  

Another could be the industry’s British origins and ownership;  (in 1950 overseas control extended to 80 percent of South Island and 50 percent of North Island production).  Late nineteenth century British industrialists did not look, as for example the Germans did, to the application of science to advance their industries.  If a technologist were employed at all in the freezing industry, he received low pay and corresponding status.  (When New Zealanders were seeking to promote the application of science to the country’s industries it was from Germany they got inspiration, not England.)  

However whatever the reason for the freezing industry’s conservatism it endured because of the existence of an established market in Britain to which it could deliver a competitive commodity.  

Changes did of course take place in the first eighty years, although they tended to occur in an ad hoc manner, and some had unanticipated results. Interestingly those that have taken place in the slaughter and dressing of the carcass parallel those of other craft activity transferred to a factory situation, with the initial dependence on the hard labour of skilled manpower being reduced by breaking the operation into steps on a line and using mechanical power.  

The further step in this process, exemplified by the motor vehicle assembly line, is automation with a significant reduction in manpower requirements, something the meat industry is now introducing. 

Introduction of the Chain

While it is now usual to think of freezing works as a place where mass production methods involving the division of labour are employed, the introduction of the chain system in which the slaughtered animals pass along a line of men each carrying out different tasks did not take place until 1932. The industry had been in existence for fifty years.

In that year, as the economic depression deepened, and the number of unemployed increased, the freezing companies in common with other businesses sought to cut wages. Following a breakdown in negotiations with the New Zealand Freezing Workers Federation they set new conditions for the new season, beginning in November 1932, which involved a wage reduction of 10 percent as well as the cancellation of a number of privileges .

Convinced the industry could not survive without them the skilled solo butchers left their jobs. The management, with little time in hand, before the opening of the export-killing season, organised the work on a crude chain system relying less on skilled labour. The butchers were recruits from the ranks of the unemployed.

After a short time the solo butchers returned to work but the chain system continued and by the 1950s had become universal.  

Ingenuity was used to overcome the engineering problems brought by the chain and electricity demands were raised as specialised equipment, such as conveyers, hoists, power tools, and spray washers, much of it designed in individual works, was introduced.  

Following the chain’s introduction a monotonous work pattern and the job insecurity associated with the seasonal nature of the industry aided  the growth of strong unions. Poor management-worker relations, manifesting in stoppages, together with an awareness of the unpleasantness of the slaughtering process, led to a bad public image for the industry. Although its seasonality proved attractive to some, for many it was an employer of last resort; certainly not a glamorous industry likely to attract bright young people eager to make their mark by initiating change.  

Ships’ engineers were the technologists to the fore in the industry. Men to operate and maintain the refrigeration equipment usually came from the marine service.  

Lowly Graduates

Graduates in the form of chemists were taken on only gradually and then principally in a quality control role. Even in the fifties, many works and companies were without chemists. Their status was low in the works hierarchy and any research and development carried out was in addition to routine duties and certainly not because of company policy.  

Nevertheless, a major innovation achieving significant economies by increasing turnover in the freezing room was initiated in 1949.  This was "blast freezing" in which air was circulated at high velocities (100-150 metres/minute for carcass meat) past finned evaporators.  Freezing times for lambs were reduced to 12-16 hours as compared to the previous 18-72 hours. 

However, if the industry had been in the habit of systematically evaluating prospective innovations, this one might not have been accepted with such alacrity. Its implications for meat quality only became understood when the Meat Industry Research Institute of New Zealand (M.I.R.I.N.Z.) was established.  

G.L.D. James argued strongly the need for such a research institution in a paper "The Efficiency of the Frozen Meat Industry", published in volume 1 of the NZ Journal of Science and Technology. James made a plea for the application of science and for innovation in the industry, being concerned that it should maintain its competitiveness after the war.  He pointed out that designers of new works had great difficulty in introducing even minor improvements because of the conservatism of their employers, who were not prepared to risk the losses that might occur if the innovation were unsuccessful. (Losses would be heightened by the large size of the works and the shortness of the killing season.) 

Government Support

James argued that the institution whose establishment he favoured should be goverment supported because any advances made should be New Zealand-wide and thus of benefit to the country as a whole. The weight loss between the livestock and the mutton sold was a particular problem that he considered warranted systematic study.

James’ views on the conservatism of the meat companies were borne out by subsequent events. Sir Ernest Marsden in the early days of the DSIR tried to establish a meat research institute to parallel that established for the dairy industry but the meat companies were reluctant to spend money on research and their public stance was that all that they had to do was to freeze meat and keep it cold (ref DSIR history).

Colonial Dependence  

Colonial dependence dies hard and when in the early 1930s the Meat Producers’ Board decided it would be desirable to ascertain  how conditions of freezing, storage and transport of New Zealand mutton and lamb could be modified so as to improve its "bloom” and general quality, it called in the Food Investigation Board, of the British Department of Scientific and Industrial Research,  who mounted an "expedition" to the colony led by a Fellow of the  Royal Society, Dr Ezer Griffith (ref British DSIR report).  

In order to establish an exact knowledge of the conditions throughout the whole chain of treatment and transport from the slaughtering point in New Zealand to Smithfield, the wholesale market in Britain, measurements were made of the temperatures and weights of the carcass and the temperature and humidity of the surrounding air at each stage.  Thus measurements and observations were made on cooling floors, freezing chambers and cold stores in the works, in the transport from stores to ship  (by railway or lighter), on board ship, in the transport from the docks to London cold stores by barge, road van, and railway, and in the cold stores.  Following this exercise, a standard figure of 4.5 percent was adopted for the weight loss in the carcass between the end of dressing chain and its delivery in the United Kingdom.  When the exercise was repeated nearly fifty years later, despite changes in handling systems a weight loss of only 0.15 percent was measured.  

A second part of the study carried out in the laboratory looked at the way environment affected the quality and appearance of New Zealand mutton and lamb. The loss of weight or desiccation of the carcass resulting from the evaporation of water led to the loss of "bloom".  This increased with storage time and if sweating of the carcass occurred due to temperatures being too high. Experiments with airtight wrapping in place of the traditional stockinette suggested that the natural bloom would be largely retained until the end of the chain of treatment if a suitable material could be found, Wrapping materials tried at the time were oiled brown paper, oiled calico and layers of waxed paper. The general conclusion of the study was that although improvements at each stage of the chain of treatment were possible, there was no need for radical alterations of technique.  

Systematic Meat Research at Last

It was not until 1955, when the country was moving away from bulk purchasing arrangements with the United Kingdom and faced with a new era of competitiveness, that protracted negotiations initiated by the DSIR led to the establishment of the Meat Industry Research Institute of New Zealand, jointly funded by the Government and the industry.  

Today, over one hundred years after the first refrigerated shipment in the "Dunedin", much of this research association’s efforts are still directed towards the optimisation of the freezing process. Study is made of the efficient achievement of tenderness in frozen meat, its packaging to improve appearance and reduce spoilage, of improvements in processing plants and of ways energy use and pollution may be reduced. As befits one of the country’s major industries, the research is of a sophisticated nature and carried out by technologists with specialisations ranging from engineering to microbiology.  

The Institute’s experimental work on the particular problem, cited by James and investigated by the British DSIR team, has shown that shrink wrapping of lamb carcasses in polythene film, a material not available in 1930, results in ten times less weight  loss in storage than with the traditional stockinette wrapped carcasses.  An additional advantage of shrink-wrapping is that the carcasses appear bright and fresh looking, in contrast to the dull dessicated appearance of those wrapped in stockinette, i.e.  "bloom" is retained.  The industry was slow to adopt this innovation but the issue was forced by the declaration of European Economic Community vetinerary inspectors in 1983 that stockinette was unhygienic. A friction film used to cover icy logs in Scandinavia was suggested to ease their handling.

Electrical Stimulation

The Research Institute’s most significant work has been on tenderness. Many years of fundamental biochemical research have led to the proving of a technique involving electrical stimulation which effectively produces tenderness in carcasses of lamb and beef.  New Zealand freezing works slowly introduced this technology

Progress with the technology started with early work at the Institute by Dr R.H. Locker, who showed that, in meat frozen too soon after slaughter, the muscle contracted and the meat was tough when cooked. In contrast, farm-killed meat hung overnight from a branch of a tree, with natural cooling is seldom tough.  

Quick freezing occurs with blast freezing and is consistent with high throughputs in the freezing works and conformity with hygiene requirements designed to reduce microbiological activity. Thus, some compromises appeared necessary if conditioning to produce tenderness was to take place. A specification for conditioning and aging, adopted in 1968, met with great success on lamb sent to North America. As it involved at least 24 hours of holding at a "safe" temperature (about 12oC) it increased costs significantly.  

Further experimental work sought to find ways to accelerate the conditioning process (the inducement of rigor in the muscle). The most effective was electrical stimulation. A practical technology was required. With the co-operation of several freezing companies, systems were evolved which carried out the electrical stimulation and provided the necessary safeguards against the voltages of up to 3000 volts required.  The stimulation is applied for about a minute as the carcasses move along a section of the normal overhead of rail enclosed in a tunnel with safety doors and switches at each end. Stimulation of beef carcasses allows them to be cut up in rigor and while still warm, a procedure known as hot boning.  

Hygiene Regulations

In the quarter century since MIRINZ was established, the industry has been forced to modernize and large capital sums have been spent on upgrading works to satisfy what have come to be referred to collectively as ‘hygiene regulations’:  These are requirements by countries importing meat as to the conditions under which it should take place.  

None of this expenditure has contributed to productivity; in fact it has reduced it, and neither has it helped to move meat away from its place in the market as a commodity – an essential move if stability is to be introduced into meat marketing.  Rising  labour costs have increased processing charges and significantly  reduced the return to farmer.  The growth of the chicken industry has provided a cheap competitor to sheepmeats in its traditional British market.  

The industry’s hundredth birthday coincided with a period of crisis. Dwindling returns to the farmer had led to the Government providing them support by making subsidy payments to raise returns to a minimum level (The SMP or Supplementary Minimum Price scheme).  At the same time the industry, acting collectively in its desperation, was looking to the introduction of major new technology to contribute to its salvation.  

Whilst, in general, the measures introduced on the killing chain to improve hygiene standards have tended to reduce productivity and increase killing costs, one set of investigations set in train to improve hygiene seems likely to radically reverse this trend. A man specifically employed by the meat company, Affco, as a research and development (R & D) officer carried out these investigations.  

Ken Garnett trained as a vet and took his Affco job when he retired from the British Colonial Service.  He was asked to determine whether carcass contamination could be reduced by mechanical removal of the pelt. In 1971, he described to a meat industry research conference how a method devised at Affco could dramatically reduce bacterial counts on parts of the carcass. In his paper he noted that although it could not be determined finally until tried on the chain, small but not insignificant labour savings appeared possible as well.

Mechanical Dressing

The main objective remained the production of a clean and well dressed carcass. Garnett reported again on his lamb and mutton dressing project to the Meat Industry Research Conference in 1973 and was able to say that, by application of the experimental pelting unit, there appeared to be a potential saving of three men on a conventional thirty-six-men Affco chain. Applying his anatomical understanding, he introduced the idea that, in the removal of the pelt, at any given point on the carcass there is a preferred direction of pull to minimise damage to the tissue.

Affco was not prepared to provide the money required to continue the research and development effort, so the patents were assigned to the industry. The method was tried at the CFM-Fairton works but was not found good enough to be adopted. This was not the end though. Faced with an explosion of wage costs and the negative productivity effect of the hygiene regulations, the industry had come to see its survival as depending on increasing throughput. New technology could be the saviour. The industry seized on the idea of mechanical pelt removal and three independent projects developed.

The CFM-Belfast works was the site of an industry venture. Here a key figure came on the scene. He was A.A.J. ’Gus’ Robertson, an independent-minded, innovative, mechanical engineer, employed as a scientist by the DSIR’s Christchurch Industrial Development Division. Other projects were initiated at W & R Fletcher’s Tomoana works and at that of T Borthwick at Waingawa.

    Each took a different approach to the problem.  

In mid 1977, by which time some $1,000,000 had been spent, mostly by individual companies, a working party of representatives of those involved in the development work met to consider further action. While none of the machines achieved consistent standards of dressing at chain speed, hygiene had improved and it appeared that very substantial manpower savings could be possible. A conservative estimate put these at $6,000,000 per year.  

The working party recommended that the New Zealand Freezing Companies Association should back further development and the appointment of a project manager. All three existing projects should be continued in parallel with a maximum of information sharing. 

Parallel Projects

The decision that the project justified a collective industry effort was something of a milestone. Traditionally developments had come from small projects within companies. The potential success of the project was enhanced by the decision that, although MIRINZ should be involved in the management committee, the project should be "conducted with the intimate association of industrial personnel in day to day contact with the practical problems of production".  This highlights the problem of any research and development group; gaining acceptance by the operators; a problem that has particularly beset MIRINZ though not peculiar to it.  By the decision, the working party improved the chances of acceptance by both management and workers. Another significant decision was that to continue with all three projects in parallel. It was a wise one, even though it may have been partly motivated by political considerations, because diversity of research and competition can be valuable and proved to be so in this case.  

As it turned out, it was the Waingawa system, involving removing the pelt as a sock, that was adopted for development. However, before this happened, some fundamental changes were made to the original system. A ring was introduced between the pelt and the carcass aimed at simulating the punching action of manual pelting, and the carcass was suspended from the fore rather than the hind legs, allowing the Garner-preferred pull directions to be achieved.  

The work at CFM-Belfast was not without its fruits. As a spinoff from this, a roller head scalper was developed which soon became  widely adopted in the industry.  

Development of the pelting machine continued, with experiments and trials at the Meat Industry Research Institute, and this was followed with on-chain trials at the Stoke (Nelson) works of Waitaki-NZR.  

In another part of the chain, electronic data processing has made its impact with the introduction of systems to weigh carcasses automatically and to record their grading. These systems can be linked with automatic carcass-marshalling systems.  

Not surprisingly, the automation of the slaughter chain has been the subject of union/ management conflict. A conscious effort to ease the introduction of automation led to the establishment of a consultative committee and an undertaking by the employers that existing workers would not suffer job loss. But the most telling influence in gaining acceptance for the new technology is a realisation by the workers that changes are necessary to ensure the continued existence of the industry. 

The last 25 years have been a tumultuous time for the meat industry. This story has been told in "Meat Acts" by Mick Calder and Janet Tyson.


This book explores the English ambivalence to modern industrial society; a pervasive middle and upper class frame of mind was hostile to industrialism and economic growth. Cambridge University Press 1981.
Published by Meat New Zealand 1999.