Pig and chicken cull possible as Victoria coronavirus lockdown hits abattoirs

Martin Farrer
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Jean-Bernard Nadeau/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jean-Bernard Nadeau/Alamy

Large numbers of pigs and chickens might have to be culled in Victoria as the state’s emergency restrictions on abattoir operators begin this week.

Meat producing facilities, which have been a hotspot for coronavirus outbreaks, have been ordered by the state government to reduce their staff by a third in order to contain the threat as Victoria moves into stage-four lockdown restrictions.

With the lambing season only just beginning and cattle numbers lower than in previous years because of drought, farmers, meat producers and supermarkets played down the risk of shortages of red meat.

But pig and chicken production is much more fixed and less impacted by seasonal factors, with one industry expert saying he feared a cull was on the cards.

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“The big problem is chicken and pigs,” said Matt Dalgleish, an analyst at Thomas Elder Markets in Victoria. “Producers might have to cull some animals, as happened in the US when they closed abattoirs. It’s not what the system is designed for.”

Much would depend, however, on the exact details of the limits on abattoir staffing, around which there was still confusion throughout the industry.

The premier, Daniel Andrews, said on Monday that meat producing facilities throughout the state would have to reduce staffing by 33% from their peak level, but the industry is still waiting for clarification about exactly what peak level will be used.

The highest weekly peak for lamb slaughter in the past five years was 220,000, but last week the number was 98,000, suggesting there is much more slack in the system.

Patrick Hutchinson, of the Australian Meat Industry Council, said on Tuesday the level was not clear but he assumed it would be 66% of this year’s peak.

“At the moment, in regards to what’s been said to us, it’s still a bit confusing,” he told the ABC.

“At the moment we’re operating that we are to reduce our staff capacity in these facilities to 66% of the peak this year. If we do that, then what we see on average across the board is over a six-week period, by trend, we would see … a close out of 25% of production. That will be a pretty significant thing.”

Red meat prices would remain stable, Hutchinson believed, but he stressed that the next few weeks were critical for the supply chains, from saleyards, farmers and transporters to wholesalers, cold stores and supermarkets and independent butchers.

“It is exceptionally hard to forecast, whilst all we know is that we need to have a reduction in staff of 33% from the peak period at some stage this year.”

Farmers in Victoria also believed there was enough flexibility to ensure supply, although there was concern about the industry if the restrictions persisted later into the year.

Peter Black, who is starting lambing on his 400-hectare sheep farm in the Latrobe Valley, said that if Victorian abattoirs were limited then the slack would be taken up interstate.

“Gippsland producers won’t be affected – unless the virus hangs on, of course, which it might well do,” he said. “That would have a big effect on us if the abattoirs haven’t got back to full production. We would have to go interstate – it’s the only option because eventually you’ve got to sell if you haven’t got kill space in Victoria.

“We just don’t know how far it is going on. It’s all an unknown.”

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Ed Connelly, a farm manager in Victoria’s western district, said if the problem lingered through into spring then the situation could be more damaging for farmers if they had to hang onto lambs and steers that would otherwise be on track for slaughtering in the run up to Christmas.

“Some would take a big hit,” he said. “They might get maybe half the price but it’s so fickle. The prices can go up and down.”

Among the supermarkets, a Coles spokesperson said its stores in Victoria had experienced some shortages in recent days because of increased demand.

But Coles was working “with our meat suppliers to ensure we can provide a broad range of products for all customers, and stock continues to be delivered daily to all of our stores”.

“To help us manage demand, we have also implemented a temporary two-pack limit on purchases of chicken breast, chicken thighs and mince in our Victorian and NSW border stores. We will continue to monitor stock levels and we thank customers for purchasing only what they need.”

Woolworths has also imposed limits on the amount of meat that can be purchased but said it was “confident we’ll be able to maintain a good supply of fresh meat for our Victorian customers”. It said it had suppliers in regional Victoria as well as at a “state-of-the-art facility” in Melbourne that it believed would be able to “maintain good volumes with the restrictions”.