Comment: Where has the heat and light gone, asks Calder?

Mick CalderThere are occasions when commenting on the current state of the meat industry you might as well skim through one of the many recent company or industry histories. It is déjà vu all over again, writes Mick Calder.

With just about any development or proposal you can flick through the history pages and find an instance to enable you to say that the industry has ‘been there, done that’.  Almost invariably, the outcome was that unless it was something proposed or introduced by one or more meat companies it did not stick. It has to be their idea; its part of their management style. So, they haven’t got the T-shirt.

So, much of the action from the Meat Industry Excellence (MIE) group which generated a lot of heat and light in the media a few weeks ago has happened before (several times in the last 40 odd years) in both the meat and the wool industry.

If history is anything to go by, the heat will cool and the light will grow dim, particularly if the saga drags on. There could be some marginal adjustments, so the stirrers can claim they had achieved some of the changes they were aiming for. In some instances, the radical conservatives will weigh in and vote for the retention of the status quo.

Generally, the causes for slow or no change have been either one, or a combination of the following: the inbuilt inertia of the current structure, the recognition by those advocating change that altering the established system is a daunting prospect, or farm-gate prices begin to improve. As a result, the pressure for change diminishes – until the next time.

Those engaged in the industry have a vested interest in protecting their own organisation and their position in it, so any industry restructuring moves by the companies are likely to be marginal and slow. As economist John Kenneth Galbraith stated, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”  It is always easier to show that change is not really necessary.

There have been reports about four major meat companies discussing possible adjustments to improve the industry performance. It is likely that the deliberations are centred on possible collaboration relating to livestock supply and/or processing; after all they are production-oriented managers. Marketing collaboration is usually left out in the cold, when it should be to the forefront.

But the resounding silence about the form, content or outcome of these discussions speaks volumes. It is difficult therefore to know whether they are making progress or just stalling for time. A cynic would suggest that if the meat companies can drag the discussions on long enough the new season will be upon them with attention swinging on to different and possibly more urgent issues.

MIE has backed away from its original agenda for a united processing and marketing structure, and its stated aims now read like a wish list largely being left to the companies to implement, rather than an action plan.

Perhaps MIE has discovered that changing a monolith is a tough ask. Some of the original aims might have required some form of regulation but there is little or no appetite for such interventionist activity these days, so it will have to be persuasion which takes time – and that is in short supply.

Looking at it from the outside, there not a lot of urgency and there is no inspirational or even evangelical leader standing up to lead the charge and beard the meat companies. So anything that happens is likely to be the result of a long-winded process and the results could be minor and cosmetic.

To add to these woes, some industry commentators are now talking about an improvement in prices for the coming season as a result of shortages from the drought and because of a drop in value of the NZ dollar. There are also suggestions of a lower lamb kill, so there are likely to be shortages in markets that have been diligently developed over the recent past. Will this put upward pressure on prices, again?

If this happens, then the momentum for change that has been building will quickly and quietly dissipate. The meat companies will sail on their merry way and everything will be forgotten until next time; just as they have done several times in the past.

Former secretary for the New Zealand Meat Board and the NZ Lamb Company, Mick Calder was co-author, with Janet Tyson, of Meat Acts, a history of the New Zealand meat industry from 1972 to 1997, which makes fascinating reading (Published 1999: ISBN: 0-9582052-2-1). He has written countless other reports, newsletters and articles for magazines and newspapers. He also maintains his own blog, Agriphile.

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