THE red meat processing sector’s fight for action on regulatory reform has found both support and opposition, both arguably from unexpected corners.
Australia’s chief animal protection organisation the RSPCA has backed calls for government measures to alleviate costs but the meatworkers union says the only way to relieve the pressure on processors is to ensure that cattle grown in Australia stay in Australia.
Both organisations were speaking in response to Fairfax Media reports on the “axis of issues” forcing processing plant shutdowns across the nation.
The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU) has rejected calls for a reduction in regulation, saying that would damage Australia’s outstanding food safety and quality standards.
Instead, it says the cattle shortage is what is causing abattoir closures and the live export sector is to blame.
The Australian cattle herd is currently at a 25-year low, and a full 10 per cent of the cattle in that already small pool are now being sent overseas to be processed, according to AMIEU.
This not only results in 10 per cent less work for Australian workers, but it also means high prices for the cattle that do remain, which smaller meat processing companies simply cannot afford to pay, the union said.
If that 10pc of cattle remained in Australia, it would be more than sufficient to keep many smaller meat processors operating at a sustainable level, AMIEU argues
Australia’s major meat processors already enjoy extremely strong profit growth, and are offering low or even non-existent pay rises to their workers – all the while remaining bitterly silent on the live export issue, it said.
“Australia’s meat industry has consolidated into several major players, all of which are backed by billion-dollar multinational food giants,” said AMIEU federal secretary Graham Smith.
“The days of the mum and dad, small business meat company are gone forever.
“The AMIEU encourages the government to consider increasing the level of regulation on the live export industry, rather than supporting it wholesale with millions of dollars in funding, grants and financial support.
“By returning Australian cattle to Australian plants, and returning the massive profits to worker wages, the Australian meat industry can ensure a future of growth and stability for everyone.”
Live trader operators say Australia’s red meat sector is best served by strong live export and processing sectors, which together maximise opportunities for producers with a full range of market options.
Australian Livestock Exporters Council chief executive officer Simon Westaway said: “Our livestock and red meat supply chain draws much of its long-term resilience from the integrated way in which stakeholders cooperate. Such integration, which is a pillar of the national red meat sector’s strategic accord – the Meat Industry Strategic Plan 2020 (MISP 2020) – helps us to promote Australia’s red meat brand, and grow our overall production and value for the benefit of all stakeholders.
“With this in mind, all red meat industry stakeholders would agree that there needs to be more political attention paid to the removal of unnecessary regulatory costs and inefficiencies that challenge our productivity, curb innovation and compromise our competitiveness in overseas markets.”
The RSPCA, while also in support of phasing out the live cattle trade, does however see value in alleviating regulatory costs in the processing sector.
While it was not the RSPCA’s place to advocate for any particular fiscal measurements, senior policy officer Dr Jed Goodfellow said the organisation supported government investment in domestic processing infrastructure.
The RSPCA acknowledged the pressures abattoirs were currently under and saw any measures to alleviate those costs as a positive if that meant less reliance on live export, he said.
The organisation’s policy is for animals to be slaughtered as close to the source of production as possible.
That eases transport issues which present inherent stresses on animals.
The RSPCA has, for a number of decades, pushed for a phase out of the livestock export trade in favour of domestic processing.
Live exporting accentuated the travel risk but it also posed further risk through animals being processed in foreign jurisdictions where Australia had little ability to control conditions and where non-stun slaughter was common, Dr Goodfellow said.
The number of Australian processing plant shutdowns this year, and speculation about a trend towards offshore processing, was “very concerning to us”, Dr Goodfellow said.
“That would result in significant animal welfare implications by virtue of the live export trade growing,” he said.
“Our first concern is the welfare of animals but we can see a win-win between greater economic contribution to the Australian economy,” he said.
“The more animals processed here the greater the benefit to largely regional economies.
“We believe the future of Australian agriculture will be in looking to value adding here and delivering to high end markets.”