AS EARLY starting processors experience major staff shortages due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the industry is hoping a decision to relax isolation rules for meat workers will take some pressure off.
Last week, Coles put limits on the sale of some beef products and the Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) warned of widespread domestic meat shortages.
In response, the Queensland, New South Wales and Victorian governments have allowed food and grocery workers, including meatworkers, who are a close contact of a case to avoid quarantine if they test negative – putting them in line with health workers.
While the limited availability of rapid antigen tests are still a worry for processors hoping to use the relaxed restrictions, the move has mostly been welcomed by the industry.
AMIC CEO Patrick Hutchinson said the rapid spread of Omicron had already forced some processors to significantly reduce capacity.
“We’ve had a range of facilities up and down the eastern seaboard close or have up to 60 percent absenteeism,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“A lot of processors have been trying to start work again in the past fortnight to fulfil their orders and this has been a big frustration.”
Mr Hutchinson said the new isolation rules were welcomed by the industry, with processors working hard to provide a safe environment.
“We’re hoping workers will be able to come back to work and product can start to come through,” he said.
“Our COVIDsafe plans within plants are very stringent and a lot of PPE is used to stop the virus spreading. These were in place for other outbreaks like Delta and variants before that.”
More plants to open in the next fortnight
While the Omicron variant has been spreading quickly through the eastern states, most processors have been in their traditional maintenance period – with some major operators to come online in the next fortnight.
Australasian Meat Employees Union federal secretary Matt Journeaux said other processing industries already experienced major staff shortages.
“Poultry has been really affected by the outbreak, with one the big plants having about 30pc of staff isolating because of COVID,” Mr Journeaux said.
“Beef City started last Friday and they had a full crew show-up, which was really good. Dinmore is the next cab off the rank, they don’t start until next week.”
Mr Journeaux said exempting workers from quarantine if they test negative was likely to help the industry.
“Health and safety is a priority, but we have to be realistic about people’s ability to earn a living,” he said.
RATs remain elusive for processors
While the new rules have been welcomed by the industry and the union, the nationwide shortage of RATs had many concerned about their ability to meet the new requirements.
“I’m not sure how the new isolation rules are going to work because workers will need access to RATs and there is not enough around,” Mr Journeaux said.
“It’s non-sensical to make people test negative every day, when they would normally be isolating, without making RATs free for meatworkers.”
AMIC has also been calling for processing companies to have access to free RATs, with governments yet to act on it.
“We’ve been advocating for free tests since September last year and the Federal Government has made it clear they don’t want to do it,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“At this point we just want to see enough of them available so processors can continue to underpin the supply chain.”