VICTORIA’S metropolitan red meat processors have been ignored in Premier Daniel Andrew’s COVID-19 roadmap despite high workforce vaccination rates, according to the sector’s peak body.
Metropolitan red meat processors are labouring under 20pc workforce level restrictions, which combined with an endemic staff shortage and the rising Spring lamb turn-off has farmers concerned about processing capacity and competition/price impacts.
Despite their significant on-site COVID-19 strategies and high worker vaccination rates, processors are not being offered an industry-specific COVID-19 roadmap by the Department of Health and Human Services.
On Sunday, Victorian Premier Andrews offered outlined his roadmap for regional and metropolitan communities out of COVID-19 restrictions, based on reaching 70 percent and 80pc double vaccination rate targets.
“It’s a race to get vaccinated, it cannot be a race to open up,” Mr Andrews said today.
The document ‘Victoria’s Roadmap: Delivering the National Plan’ indicates that there will be no change to metro processor workforce restrictions before October 26, assuming 70pc of people aged 16 years and above have been fully vaccinated, and subject to epidemiology at the time. The roadmap says at that time meat and seafood processing can be open with COVIDSafe settings and “additional obligations.”
Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive officer Patrick Hutchinson said it seems the industry has been ignored with no respect or recognition “again”, despite some plants having double vaccination rates of above 95pc among workers.
He said it seems the ending of the processor workforce restrictions depend on community vaccination levels, “when we as an industry on average are well in front of the community average for vaccination.”
DHHS has also failed to respond to several questions from Sheep Central about the conditions under which the workforce restrictions will be phased out. Sheep Central has learned that surveillance testing of workers is being replaced with wastewater monitoring at the metropolitan plants, but DHHS has not said whether the results will be used to continue or discontinue workforce restrictions or to set/reassess COVID settings.
Mr Hutchinson said metropolitan plant worker surveillance testing should have been used to ensure even more workers are not removed on a daily basis.
“It is frustrating to say the least when the smallgoods and meat processing sectors have bent over backwards to comply.”
The measures adopted at the plants include COVIDSafe plans, masks, personal protective equipment, temperature testing, social distancing, additional cleaning and sanitation programs, surveillance and wastewater testing.
“Where is the evidence to support the (workforce) restrictions? That’s the question,” Mr Hutchinson said.
Reward meat processing sector for high vaccination rates – AMIC
Mr Hutchinson said three weeks ago, AMIC data indicated that more than 20pc of metropolitan processing sites had more than 80pc of staff fully vaccinated and 50pc had between 50-80pc of people fully vaccinated.
Mr Hutchinson believes in the same way that additional community freedoms have been promised to incentivise vaccination, the metropolitan plants should be rewarded for their high worker vaccination rates with an easing of restrictions. He believes that metropolitan processing plants with 70pc+ or 80pc+ worker vaccination rates should have their workforce restrictions dropped.
“Yes, there is no epidemiological sense for any other approach.
“DHHS, the Health Minister, the Premier’s department and Premier have not consulted the industry on this issue,” he said.
“The Victorian Government, minus Agriculture Victoria and the current Agriculture Minister, has turned its back on our industry.
“The figures from Meat & Livestock Australia are clear, if these restrictions go to Melbourne Cup day (November 2), a quarter of a million lambs may not be able to be processed, and farmers will suffer after having the best seasons in years following crippling droughts, fires and floods,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“The Premier needs to answer to this.”
Colac-based processor the Australian Lamb Company also operates a Sunshine West boning room and livestock manager Ben Verrall told Sheep Central store stock specialist Murray Arnel that workforce restrictions – COVID-imposed and the general staff shortage — could mean that between 75,000-100,000 stock a week might not be able to be processed each week.
“It used to be that everyone spoke about supply and demand, now there is another little thing wedged in the middle, which is throughput, and which I think is probably going to be the biggest factor coming into this Spring.
“We can only put so many through the funnel and that funnel could be overflowing come Week 41 or 42, which is November, and you would think it is going to have a bit of an impact on pricing.”
Meat processors’ proactive COVID-19 measures go unrewarded – SPA
Sheep producers of Australia chief executive officer Stephen Crisp said the meat processors have always been proactive with COVID-19 measures, but are not being rewarded by the State Government for looking after their staff.
“It is just seems to be a complete mismatch of community expectation versus what industry has been able to do and they are getting absolutely no reward for their endeavours.”
Mr Crisp said the Victorian Government’s attitude was disappointing, because the lamb industry relied on processors having capacity for Spring.
“Probably over the next three weeks we are going to have significant increases in the sucker trade and a lot more trade lambs.
“It is just going to create difficulty in the market, because the processors won’t be able to bid on lambs that are ready to go in the next month.”
Mr Crisp supported an easing of the workforce restrictions as each processing plant achieved 70pc and 80pc double vaccination rates among workers.
“Absolutely, that’s what the goal posts are for communities opening up.
“If you’ve got work places already there and they can get their businesses operating on a commercial basis then I don’t know why they can’t be supported.”
Roadmap plan is dependent on confirming vaccination status – DHHS
A Department of Health spokesperson said the DHHS has worked closely with industry to put in place the public health actions that are required and consistent with the national plan, to achieve the greater freedoms that will come from the community being at 70pc and 80pc double vaccinated.
“The roadmap indicates some easing of restrictions in all settings in Victoria, including meat works, at 70pc fully vaccinated.
“The plan is dependent on the ability of venues and employers to confirm the vaccination status of employees and patrons,” the spokesperson said.
Sheep Central was told the settings proposed in the roadmap are indicative only and all future Chief Health Officer directions changes will be made on the basis of public health evidence at the time.