Processor worker restrictions set to cause lamb issues

Sheep Central, September 6, 2021

AMIC CEO Patrick Hutchinson: COVID-19 restrictions forcing lamb production reset.

VICTORIAN farmers have called for an easing of COVID-19 workforce restrictions on metropolitan abattoirs as the sector’s peak body suggests Spring lamb processing capabilities could be impacted.

Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive officer Patrick Hutchinson has said the 20 percent workforce reduction for metropolitan plants and a mandated 25pc testing regime was reducing the production capacity of the businesses.

AMIC has protested at a lack of consultation around the restrictions, that have forced processors to reset their forecast for production.

AMIC said preliminary figures provided by Meat & Livestock Australia on the possible impact of Victorian processor restrictions show, at a normal processing spring season for lamb, the restrictions, if applied across all Victoria, would see a surplus of almost 1 million lambs. Even at the current restrictions on Metro abattoirs, this would be about 350,000 surplus lambs, which would not be taken up by New South Wales processors as happened to some point last year, AMIC said.

AMIC has also predicted that with the sustained metropolitan Melbourne workforce reductions, additional impact on pork processing and smallgoods manufacturing will occur through the supply chain, providing no guarantees to consumers on appropriate volumes of Christmas hams and pork from their independent local butcher or supermarket. Beef will also be at risk of reduced supply now and towards Christmas, the council said.

“Maintaining these restrictions on businesses will not allow Victorians, or the majority of Australians, to have as near normal a Christmas as the Premier wants,” Mr Hutchinson said.

VFF calls for easing of workforce restrictions

Mr Hutchison has been supported by Victorian Farmers Federation’s Livestock Group president Steve Harrison, who said called for an easing of the restrictions, in recognition of the efforts of meat plants to stay COVID-free.

He said the VFF, Agriculture Victoria and AMIC are trying to keep the abattoirs open.

“We realise that it is a critical time for any abattoir.”

He called for an easing of the workforce restrictions because of the abattoirs’ adherence to COVID-19 best practice. He believed the restrictions could create animal welfare issues if lambs could not be processed.

“There have been no recent cases of COVID in the abattoirs, to the best of my knowledge, and they have been adhering to best practice and all the regulations have been adhered to.”

Mr Harrison said he would be concerned if the restrictions were extended to regional meat processors.

AMIC said today that despite assurances from Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on Saturday 21 August, to reach out and speak with all industry stakeholders affected by the restrictions and “make sure they’re fully briefed”, the peak body has still not heard from the Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s Health Minister or the Premier’s department.

AMIC said it was advised via the Premier’s website, then Agriculture Victoria, that it would be a 20 percent reduction in workforce, as well as increased surveillance testing with no clear direction on that process.

“For every day these workforce reductions are in place, there is a growing impact on the supply chain from processors, wholesalers, cold stores, independent local butchers and even supermarkets,” said AMIC CEO Patrick Hutchinson.

“AMIC acknowledges our good working relationship with Agriculture Victoria, and the Victorian Agriculture Minister, who have been responsive to AMIC’s enquiries and the only department willing to speak to AMIC on these issues.

“However, I challenge the Victorian Government on their lack of information, lack of understanding of our industry, lack of respect, and lack of consultation to the meat processing and manufacturing industry.

“On-site full vaccination rates have not been considered, even with some facilities at 80-90 percent of staff fully vaccinated,” he said.

“These great results have been completely disregarded by DHHS and the Victorian Government in risk settings.

“It beggars’ belief that they would turn their back on an industry investing its own money in getting people vaccinated,” he said.

“It does nothing to incentivise industry moving forward.

“Further to this, our industry has also been slapped with a mandatory 25 percent of surveillance testing per week, even if they have over 80 percent of their workers fully vaccinated, which is over 40 percent of metropolitan meat processing sites,” he said.

Although a priority group booking vaccination system has recently been introduced, AMIC said its metropolitan Melbourne members say they are having trouble accessing group bookings through this system. AMIC said exemptions to the workforce capacity restriction of 20 percent are available on food security or animal welfare grounds; however, there is no process in place for impacted businesses to access those exemptions.

“The Victorian Government, through fleeting “whole of industry” meetings with DHHS, have repeated that the meat processing and manufacturing industry’s COVIDSafe plans are “Gold Standard”; however they now refuse to review them when setting current risk measures,” Mr Hutchinson said.

“Our industry has been at the forefront of testing and vaccination, with businesses investing heavily in private providers of these services, along with workforce vaccination incentives.

“We are classified as a high-risk 1B priority category yet are denied help from DHHS for group onsite testing and vaccinations hubs,” he said.

“Further, we have invested millions of dollars in COVIDSafe plans, interventions, PPE and COVID Marshal training. None of this has been recognised.”


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