Coronavirus restrictions on meals processing in Victoria will not result in shortages, says Prime Minister Daniel Andrews

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is adamant his severe restrictions on staffing levels at food processing and distribution centers will not lead to national food shortages.

Key points:

  • Victoria’s red-meat plants will have their staff numbers cut to 66 per cent from Sunday
  • Chicken processing will be down to 80 percent due to its different life cycle
  • The Masters Grocers Association says the measures are “not practical” and could cause shortages

In recent days, the food and grocery industry has been warning of serious supply shortages in Victoria, with flow-on effects for Australia, if food distribution centers and abattoirs are forced to cut staffing levels by one-third this weekend.

Mr Andrews is imposing the staff reductions as part of his attempt to quash his state’s COVID-19 outbreak.

From midnight on Sunday, meat processing plants — a source of Victoria’s recent outbreak — will have their staffing levels cut by up to one-third.

Red meat plants — beef, lamb, and pork processing centers — will have their staff numbers cut to 66 per cent.

Chicken processing will be down to 80 per cent staff, due to the nature of the different life cycle of poultry.

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Seafood centers with fewer than 40 staff won’t need to make changes, and smaller abattoirs with 25 or fewer staff will also be exempt.

Fruit and vegetable wholesalers will also remain open with reduced staffing levels.

Mr Andrews said the changes were necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, and he believed he had got the levels right so there would be no food shortages.

He said there was “no need for people to be trying to stockpile months and months of food,” although he warned Victorians they may not be able to buy every cut of meat they’d like over coming months.

Premier Daniel Andrews urged Victorians not to panic-buy supermarket meat products amid a reduction in output from abattoirs.(Kim Honan)

“You may not necessarily be able to get exactly the cut of meat that you want, but you will get what you need and you will get all the products that are, basically, fundamentally important to you,” he said on Thursday.

“It’ll only make things harder if people who have the means to do it, go and buy enormous quantities of food.

“That’ll just mean that other people, potentially, don’t get the things they need. That’s why the supermarkets have put a number of buying limits in place.

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“A lot of work has gone into driving down staff levels but, at the same time, protecting the amount of product that will be on supermarket shelves. That’s our aim.”

Despite the Premier’s attempt to clarify his plans, confusion still reigned.

A joint phone call was held on Thursday afternoon for representatives of supermarkets, food wholesalers and retailers, to speak to Victorian government officials to understand how the planned staff reductions could work in practice.

Different operations along the food supply chain have different needs.

Empty fresh meat fridges in Woolworths supermarket near Brisbane. Some industry experts say the reduction of Victorian meat production will have “an impact” on supermarket shelves.(ABC News: Elaine Ford)

Jos De Bruin, the chief executive of Master Grocers Australia, said it was not practical to reduce warehousing staff numbers by one-third.

“If you reduce warehousing staff by one-third, if effectively reduces the ability to supply. It slows things down,” he told the ABC.

“Coupled with that, you’ve got people panicking and regardless of what anyone says, they’re not going to buy their weekly shop, they might buy a week-and-a-half or two-weeks if they can afford it, because it’s there and they’re frightened.

“That’s going to put an immediate impact on our shelves.

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“And it’s not just that. We’ve got cafes, bars, bistros, hotels, and restaurants closing. Sure, they’re doing takeaway, but there’s a curfew so people will stay home and eat at home more.

“We’ve got this perfect storm of demand, and yet we’ve got this ruling that staffing levels have to be reduced at distribution centers … it’s not practical.”

Mr De Bruin said he’d be seeking clarification to see if a 30 per cent reduction in staff could be applied to a business’s overall operation, rather than to each business unit within an operation.

Victoria is the second largest state in Australia in terms of economic output.

It accounts for over 23 per cent of the national economy, behind New South Wales (32.1 per cent) but ahead of Queensland (19 per cent), Western Australia (14.7 per cent), South Australia (5.7 per cent), the ACT ( 2.1 per cent), Tasmania (1.7 per cent) and the Northern Territory (1.4 per cent).

It is also the nation’s largest exporter of food and fibre, accounting for nearly 30 per cent of such exports in 2018-19.

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