Australian food producers hit by Covid staff shortages welcome isolation rule changes
Dairy and meat producers are pleading for more government help to cope with Covid disruptions in their industries as supermarket shelves empty and farm workers are hit by the virus.
One big abattoir in South Australia has requested its staff return to work, despite 140 of them testing positive, while other farmers are facing filling milk vats or rotting produce as goods are held back from the market due to the lack of staffing.
Grant Crothers, president of the Australian Dairy Products Federation, said as many as 40% of workers in some parts of the dairy food chain were absent because of Covid or because they were close contacts.
“We’ve obviously got an extremely time-sensitive raw material that relies on an excellent supply chain to get it to the processing point,” he said. “You can leave a cow in a paddock, you can leave grain in a silo, but you can’t leave milk in a vat on a farm.”
Few dairy farmers would have more storage than about 1.5 days’ worth of milk production on their farms, Crothers said.
Conditions had “changed dramatically” in the past couple of weeks, with the whole supply chain (including for exports) stretched or disrupted.
“If you lose 24 hours, you’re in crisis mode because the milk can’t be stored on farm and therefore you risk dumping the milk, which triggers a whole lot of other issues around effluent and contamination of the waterways,” Crothers said.
Meat producers were facing similar disruptions as every stage from trucking to deboning was being hit by staff shortages of varying levels, said Tim Kingma, a pig farmer near Echuca in northern Victoria. “One particular buyer of mine has over half their staff out with Covid.”
“Australia has the meat,” said Kingma, who also heads the Victorian Farmers Federation pig group. “We’ve just got to get it to the plate.”
In Kingma’s case, his farm would typically ship 600 pigs a week to market. “I’ve had to cut back 100 this week just because of the Covid issues,” he said. “They don’t stop growing. I can’t just put them out into the paddock to relax and forget about.”
Both Crothers and Kingma welcomed changes announced on Monday by the Victorian government that will kick in from Wednesday 11.59pm, AEDT.
Workers in the food sector, including supermarkets, may be exempted from close contact isolation requirements provided they are asymptomatic, undertake daily rapid antigen tests for five days and return a negative result prior to returning to work.
The Victorian changes bring the state into line with Queensland and NSW. All states and territories, except WA, were expected to sign off on the changes on Monday. To work, though, they needed to be backed up by the supply of rapid tests to regional areas, Crothers said.
In South Australia, Teys Australia has ordered back workers at its Naracoorte meatworks even if they are Covid positive.
According to a notice to staff seen by Guardian Australia dated 9 January, the company said: “As per our call to you today – and as confirmed by SA Health – you are required to present for work tomorrow (Monday) as normal unless you are feeling unwell.”
“This applies even if you have tested positive to Covid either by a PCR or RAT rapid test, and also if you are currently isolating because you are a close contact,” it said.
Sharra Anderson, branch secretary of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union for SA and WA, said that almost 100 of the meatworks’ 400 staff had been infected.
“This is absolutely disgusting. I’m absolutely gobsmacked,” Anderson said, adding that other abattoirs had just closed their doors when affected by Covid, rather than risking spreading the virus further.
Staff will “go home to their family, who are also involved within the community” and give the virus to them. “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Anderson said.
Guardian Australia has approached Teys for comment.
A spokesperson for the SA department of health said: “To ensure food security, SA Health has allowed a small group of critical staff who have tested positive and are asymptomatic, to continue to work in an isolated area away from others.”
“These workers must remain at home and isolate when they are not at work until they are cleared from Covid,” the spokesperson said, adding SA Health had sent a Covid rapid response team to the abattoir in Naracoorte to test “all relevant staff”.
“We are working closely with management to ensure the business can continue to operate safely and continue food production at the site,” the official said.
Meanwhile, the Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) welcomed the response by federal and state governments to protect food supply chains. National cabinet on Monday endorsed interim guidance by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee on permissions and restrictions for workers in food and grocery supply.
“We welcome national cabinet’s endorsement today of the medical expert panel’s new set of arrangements, which allows workers who are close contacts to return to work if they have no symptoms and are fully vaccinated,” said AMIC CEO Patrick Hutchinson.
Michael Coote, chief executive of the Ausveg industry group, said some growers were reporting staff shortages, particularly in the field and in packing sheds.
“This is resulting in growers working longer hours, and in some cases redeploying staff to other areas of the business, to get product from the field to consumers,” Coote said.
Growers were already under pressure to find pickers and packers because of visa restrictions.
“Perishable products that have a limited shelf life are at most risk of disruptions across the supply chain, given the increased time that it can take for product to get from the farm to consumers,” Coote said.
He said it was critical that essential workers who work in agriculture were able to continue to work if they test negative for Covid and are fully vaccinated.