4 Dec 2010

Future of meat plant jobs unclear after blaze

7:14 pm on 4 December 2010

Staff at one of the Waikato district's largest employers are facing a nervous wait after a fire extensively damaged the Silver Fern Farms meat processing plant in Te Aroha.

The plant was in the peak of the season, employing about 350 people and what happens to them remains unclear.

Chief executive Keith Cooper says the company has a great and loyal workforce but it is unknown how long it will be before the plant can be operational again.

He says the company is doing everything it can to work with and for staff and he will be personally meeting with the workers on Monday to take them through the situation.

Mr Cooper says whether staff can still be paid rests in part with insurance assessors who were at the site on Saturday.

He says the damage will be disruptive but the company can increase capacity at its other North Island sites.

Matamata-Piako mayor Hugh Vercoe says the plant is a key part of the community and the number of employees is equivalent to almost one tenth of Te Aroha's population.

He says the community will be severely affected.

Blaze sparks high alert

The Fire Service activated its highest alarm level after the fire started at the 6000-square-metre plant shortly after 11.30pm on Friday.

It was too dangerous to get inside the building and the blaze had to be attacked from the outside only.

There were no sprinklers and tankers had to transport water to the site.

Crews spent Saturday at the scene dampening hot spots.

The site was eventually deemed safe for fire investigators to enter on Saturday afternoon.

Fire safety officer Kevin Holmes says his team was kept out of buiding all morning because of the presence of dangerous chemicals.

At one stage, police looked at the possibility of evacuating everyone within a 2km radius of the plant because of ammonia stored in refrigeration units.

The Fire Service says the blaze is not being treated as suspicious and an investigation into its cause is due to begin on Sunday.

Eastern Waikato area manager Gary Talbot says it will take days to work through all the potential ignition sources and determine the point of origin and the possible cause.