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Shareholders back Chinese stake in New Zealand meat cooperative

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WELLINGTON, Oct. 16 (Xinhua) -- China's biggest meat processor came a step closer to a 50-percent stake in New Zealand's biggest meat cooperative Friday after farmer shareholders overwhelmingly backed the proposal.

Silver Fern Farms shareholders voted 82.22 percent in favor of Shanghai Maling Aquarius Group, which is 38 percent owned by China's Bright Food Group, buying a half share for 261 million NZ dollars (178.47 million U.S. dollars).

Silver Fern Farms Chairman Rob Hewett said the partnership would be a defining moment for the business which would give it unique market access in China.

"With the extensive retail and distribution assets of Shanghai Maling and the broader Bright Food Group in China, we will have a unique opportunity to build Silver Fern Farms as the premium red meat brand in what is the world's fastest growing protein market," Hewett said in a statement.

"With higher returns and lower debt we expect to be able to share profits via regular payments of dividends to the two shareholders and maintain competitive procurement prices for our livestock suppliers."

The deal was still subject to Shanghai Maling shareholders for approving the partnership on Oct. 30 and regulatory approvals from the New Zealand and Chinese authorities, which are expected to take several months.

However, opposition lawmakers criticized the government for failing to help the meat industry become more competitive and leaving it open to offshore ownership.

The board had led shareholders to believe they had no option but to accept overseas investment as "the only bankable option," said the main opposition Labour Party.

"I acknowledge the astute way the Chinese company has taken over Silver Fern Farms. The hope now is they use that cunning to improve returns to the farmer suppliers," Labour primary industries spokesperson Damien O'Connor said in a statement.

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