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Shops will be in short supply of chicken products, red meat, fresh fruit and vegetables in the coming weeks, with milk also at risk while the food supply chain is tested to breaking point by the huge numbers of workers in isolation due to COVID-19.
Farmers are still producing the same volume of meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables but there aren’t enough workers in transport, processing or distribution to get it into shops.
Workforce shortages are disrupting food supply to retail outlets. Credit:Eamon Gallagher
Some meat processing plants have had to shut down and others, along with food distribution facilities, report 50 per cent or more of their staff are off work due to contact with the virus.
Amid a dearth of rapid antigen tests and active coronavirus cases nearing 600,000, all states except Western Australia are relaxing health restrictions to enable more people to keep working during the wave of Omicron infections.
The new rules allow close COVID-19 contacts deemed low risk of infection to return to work without taking a RAT if they have no symptoms. But high-risk contacts who were in close proximity to an infected person must take several rapid antigen tests before they can return to work.
Farm groups are calling for workers in food supply chain companies to get priority access to the tests, of which there are still chronic shortages.
“Last year we advocated for a reopening plan that modelled supply chain disruption and called for industry access to rapid antigen tests,” Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano said.
“It’s frustrating that we are all suffering because of lack of clear direction because state and federal governments are blaming each other, which has gone on far too long in this pandemic. It’s impossible for the average Australian to determine who’s accountable for what’s going wrong.”
The Australian Chicken Meat Federation said on Tuesday the “chicken supply situation continues to deteriorate daily” and more labour-intensive products like de-boned or skinless cuts and processed goods were most likely to disappear from shelves.
“There are plenty of chickens out on farms, but just not enough people to pick them up, process them and distribute chicken products to stores,” said federation executive director Vivien Kite.
Milk has so far remained in good supply at retail outlets, but the industry has “enormous concerns” about supply shortages in coming days and weeks if trucking companies and milk processing plants don’t have enough workers to keep operations running.
“Farmers milk their cows seven days a week and they can’t store milk in a vat on farm if the tanker doesn’t come to pick it up,” said Australian Dairy Products Federation president Grant Crothers.
“Supply could deteriorate any time, it’s a factory-by-factory, shift-by-shift scenario.”
Horticulture industry representative AusVeg said perishable vegetables with a short shelf like were most likely to be missing from shelves.
“Leafy salad vegetables, broccoli, celery, cabbage and cauliflower, 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,” AusVeg chief Michael Coote said.
National Farmers Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said rapid tests are “key to keeping supply chains operating”.
“An urgent issue is the availability of tests for farmers and other critical workers, noting the eased quarantine requirements heavily rely on [rapid] testing,” Mr Mahar said.
Large supermarket chains urged shoppers to be flexible when it comes to filling their trolley, as supermarkets reduce the variety of products and brands on offer in an effort to ensure essential items continue to be stocked.
Farmers said shoppers should try their luck at independent grocers, fruit and vegetable shops, butchers and produce markets because they don’t necessarily rely on the same supply chains as major supermarkets.
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