John (Jack) Fulton’s great-grandfather, John Macfarlane, was a CFM founder, his father had been a director and sister Mary had a large shareholding in a family trust.
The company had plants at Belfast, 8km north of Ashburton at Fairton and Pareora, about 15 km south of Timaru. The head office was in Christchurch and the company also had a trading office in London. Typically, Jack found himself equally at home in the boardroom or the slaughter room. But he soon faced some tough decisions over the company’s management.
In the late 1960s, MAF began telling the industry plant hygiene had to improve to meet overseas standards. We had several meetings in Wellington in the mid 1960s and I became convinced that hygiene was the future of the industry.
About 1965, Bob Iles asked me if I’d like to be chairman of the South Island Freezing Companies Association. It was a loose organisation of the various companies, and members of the executive were all company general managers. They had always had a company director as chairman, who really was to be seen as an independent person without any powers on policy. I agreed to take on the job, so next thing I had to go to a meeting in Invercargill. It felt like I’d gone from being the midshipman to be appointed to be admiral over a fleet of naval captains. I had pretty well no experience of the industry at this stage so it was quite an interesting occasion – getting to know these various people.
They were mainly interested in what was happening with the unions, who were putting extreme pressure on the industry to lift the wages – there were several strikes and upsets to keep us occupied. There were no agreements between the companies on marketing, but within a year or two, MAF came under pressure to improve the hygiene side of the industry. The loading of the cargo in to the railway trucks was particularly bad. It was man-handled into so-called insulated railway vans. These carcases of lamb from the cold store had to be shoved along and then down long wooden chutes on to the frontage, all in the open, out on to where the wagons were standing on the railway sidings, and into dirty old vans. They called them insulated, but they were no more insulated than I was. Then they were railed down to the ports and hand-fed into cargo nets and taken on board, again totally in the open, and they were often just about unfrozen by the time they got on board. They virtually had to be refrozen.
The Meat Board had inspectors, but there was still no real hygiene. The Veterinary Association said Europe was simply not going to put up with this sort of treatment of lamb… there had already been one or two horrific stories of rotten mutton arriving there, or going rotten. There was also the story of a plane taking off from London to Tokyo, and suddenly the passengers started to feel sick. It turned out they had eaten contaminated ham and whole plane -load except the crew got diarrhoea. They had to put the plane down in Warsaw. What a mess it must have been. People said; ‘it couldn’t happen’. I said, ‘of course it could happen, we could get contaminated meat, we’d get awful problems with it’.
In 1968, I went on a trip to the UK where I went through one of the dairy importing cold stores just out of London. I’d seen them using the palletising technique pioneered by a Norwegian firm, so I rang New Zealand and suggested that the designer of this cold store come out to NZ to advise us on our storage. The industry people told me they wouldn’t be interested in seeing him, even though I said this chap was willing to come free of charge, other than us paying his airfares. He was a total expert on cold stores, and they turned me down. That annoyed me intensely. He was a total expert on food hygiene and storing and the lamb was just the same as butter – there was virtually no difference.
The first company to do so was the freezing works at Nelson, which was alongside the Apple and Pear Board. The apple and pear people had been doing a lot of work using fork lifts to cart product away on pallets. It seemed an easy method for the meat industry to follow, but farmers were horrified about it because the cost was going to be enormous.
In 1972, CFM had to come to grips with that when it Borthwicks Belfast plant in exchange for 24% of its shares. The company soon discovered how much work was needed to get the facilities up to speed.
Temperatures in the rendering department there used to get up to about 60 degrees. The conditions of hand labour in the department were frightful. The slaughter board had huge air bags over it trying to keep the men cool but there would be 100 streaming hot carcasses of lamb on the floor at any one time and hot water being thrown everywhere – the humidity was horrendous. The men worked in briefs – that is about all they could work in. They also had to scrape out vats by hand by hand; take all the cooked meat meal out by hand with long rakes. The people who worked on it got a pretty good wage compared to most people, but the conditions were still unbelievable.
Farmers used to moan that the temperature outside would get up to 35 or 40 centigrade – but some men in there simply couldn’t foot it. Borthwicks really did absolutely nothing to alleviate the conditions, bar putting a big air bag right down the plant that blew air over various parts of the chain. If you were underneath it wasn’t so bad, but if you were alongside it was even worse than it was before. There were no national standards at all and we were still running under just the individual plants – MAF had no real control. We had meat inspectors but they were pretty powerless. It was Heath Robinson to a degree, it really was.
England’s hygiene conditions also needed a drastic overhaul, but that didn’t happen quickly either.
I went to Smithfield markets in London one time, and found the treatment of the lamb was just as appalling. I reckon King Alfred made the barrows and had never come back to clean them. It really annoyed me that we were expected to do our share at our end of the hygiene work, and when it got to England and they couldn’t care less about it. And what was worse, New Zealand farmers would all go over there and they’d say, ‘why the hell should we worry about it here, you know, they’re doing this … over in the UK’.But by this time, the Americans had come into the market, and lamb was being sold in the US to try and help the situation in the UK and in Japan. The Americans were the prime movers in getting the situation cleaned up.
In New Zealand, CFM’s Belfast plant led the way in terms of improvements, but an Affco man’s research arguably prompted the reform.
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. The main objective remained the production of a clean and well dressed carcase.
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.
\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”.
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 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 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.
Farmers hardly greeted the hygiene reform with open arms, however, as they were the ones being asked to pay for it.
It was a pretty stressful time for me because I was asked to talk to all these farming groups and I was obviously as unpopular as I could be because I was promoting things that were going to cost them an awful lot of money – and it did. The culmination of all this came in about 1981 when the industry decided to build these palletised cold stores.
Farming in the mid 1980s was rocked by the removal of farm subsidies, and then whacked again by spiralling interest rates. Jack had been pushing for expensive new hygiene for a decade, but it was still a hard barrow to push.
Some said the reform wasn’t necessary. We had to put eight-foot high fences around the works; there were all sorts of rules. Trucks cleaned every time they’d had stock in them, and all these restrictions, which at the time seemed horrendous. But as time has gone gone by, they’ve just been taken as the norm – clean trucks and clean stock. CFM made a start on the cool stores in about 1983, but we came under pressure over the cost. So we decided at a meeting of both the North Island and the South Island freezing company associations to ask the Government to guarantee the overdrafts or the necessary loans. We tried to explain that it wasn’t as if we were going to gain from this. The only thing we were gaining was assurances that markets were still available to us. I led a group from Freezing Company Association, as it had now become, to ask Mr Muldoon, who was also Finance Minister, for a guaranteed loans scheme at a reasonable rate of interest.
I got into the office, read the first two paragraphs of the proposal before Muldoon just stood up and said, ‘You’re wasting my time, get out… I’ll look after the farmers, you go back and look after your industry’. And he ordered us out of the office – never gave it the slightest concern. It was a stupid decision, because it was another five or six years before the rest of the companies followed finally suit. I don’t know what the cost to the New Zealand farmer was, because the building boom came at this time, so the cost of building those stores in 1982 rocketed. Muldoon was in the process of giving away huge sums of money to farmers to produce more lamb, and I believe he had entirely the wrong motive. The smart boys made huge money out of him, but the industry was left lagging well behind where it should have been.
Progress was slow – and inspectors continued to harry the industry for improvements.
In a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries circular in 1983, for instance, the ministry told meat packing houses, meat export slaughterhouses and export stores what the European Economic Community expected of the industry. The ministry said in terms of public health, there were “a number of areas where New Zealand is at variance with EC requirements”. Besides several suggested changes to cutting procedures, the Ministry asks the industry to improve standards for the movement of product. For example, meat was to be stored only in cold stores that complied with EC requirements and packaging meat was not to be hanbdled by staff handling meat. Following a visit by an EC review team in April/May of that year, the meat industry was asked to correct problems such as chiller temperatures and separation of triming from cuts. Specifically, in some cases chiller temperatures were too high as a result of reheating carcases to soften fat. The practice was to stop immediately. Also, in some cases trimmings were not always removed properly, resulting in the potential problem of trimmings being packed with cuts. In addition, it was noted that the application and positioning of carton seals, and the later handling of cartons, resulted in seals breaking. Disused facilities were “often grossly untidy and could potentially harbour vermin”, while the inspection team noted smoking in corridors outside edible areas, with resulting ends being discarded on floors. “Many workers were noted off premises or outside work areas in work clothes, potentially prejudicing the hygiene of product upon their return to work areas.” The team also noted many instances where adequate boot washes were absent from outside edible areas. Finally, the team noted some reservoirs had inadequate inspection ports and improperly fitted ports. There were also areas in which back siphonage could create contamination of potable water.