The Australian agriculture industry is continuing to call on the Victorian government to allow abattoirs in the state to increase their processing capacity to at least 80 per cent as soon as possible.
This comes after Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews released the state's roadmap to recovery on the weekend, which indicated metropolitan and regional meat processing facilities would remain highly restricted until at least November 23.
Sheep Producers Australia chief executive Stephen Crisp said the organisation had become increasingly concerned by the unchanging situation for abattoirs in Victoria.
Mr Crisp said protocols were currently in place to ensure the workforce was not placed at risk.
"It is time to see the industry operating at an acceptable level, with continuation of the appropriate precautions in place," he said.
"Sheep producers and abattoirs are asking for a common sense set of parameters to be applied for the abattoirs and the regions in which they operate - having had little or no COVID-19 cases."
He said Victoria was a powerhouse for the processing of spring lambs and the impact of its closures were being felt beyond the state's borders.
"Victorian abattoirs are not just for Victorians, nor do any abattoirs see themselves as just catering for an area within state boundaries," he said.
"The Victorian plants are an essential part of the program for Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and NSW.
"While these states have processing facilities, they do not all specialise in the same market or type of sheep, and those abattoirs will source sheep and lambs from Victoria to suit their requirements."
Mr Crisp said the industry was struggling to work out exactly what was required by the Victorian regulators to meet the "very reasonable" proposal of increasing capacity back to 80pc.
"The federal government talks about the impact Victoria's continuing restrictions are having on the Australian economy," he said.
"In the case of sheep and lamb processing, it is having a real effect on the ability of a national industry to effectively operate as an essential service to feed the nation."
Victorian Farmers Federation president David Jochinke said the government's "hard-nosed approach" to the meat processing sector was hurting the industry.
"Our message on abattoirs hasn't changed and we are in lockstep with the meat processing sector on this - we need to return to at least 80pc processing capacity as soon as possible," Mr Jochinke said.
"The current proposal for all metropolitan and regional meat processing facilities to remain highly restricted until at least 23 November is simply not workable.
"If we don't get to 80pc soon there will be lambs that cannot get processed, limited capacity to process grass fed beef and continued uncertainty in the pork and poultry industries that are already operating on a knife edge."
He said the risk to animal welfare was "just unpalatable".
"Add to that the potential impact on markets and the current proposal will be disastrous for industry and the food supply chain," he said.
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NSW Farmers president James Jackson said the organisation was concerned by the dramatic price drops in the sheepmeat and goat industries, which had been caused by Victoria's processing disruptions.
Mr Jackson said the closures had come at a critical stage for NSW producers, many of whom were looking to recover from the economic impacts of drought.
"It's not uncommon for producers to have held onto stock during the drought, absorbing the costs of feed with the expectation prices would rise and they'd be able to recoup losses afterward," he said.
"Livestock producers are going to have limited numbers of stock to market in the rebuilding period post drought."
He said it would be particularly cruel for producers who had spent a fortune on keeping animals going through the drought to be denied a fair return on the stock they had to market because of labour issues in the processing industry.
"Earlier in the year, lamb prices were sitting around $9 a kilogram, while now they're closer to $5 a kilogram," he said.
"Producers who purchased store lambs earlier in the year are also set to lose out, facing much lower market prices despite fattening and improving the stock."
Mr Jackson said there were a number of workforce factors influencing the current situation, which needed to be rectified in order for vital food production to continue.
"A high percentage of workers in processing plants are from overseas on short-term visas," he said.
"The crisis has meant some are no longer able to stay in Australia.
"Others have simply had their access to work impeded by the restrictions and quarantine requirements.
"We need appropriate permit systems for agriculture to ensure flow of workforce across borders, and we need solutions around entry visas.
"Processing plants have high fixed overheads, so they can't afford workplace disruptions like these."
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