SUPERMARKET red meat supply shortages are looming as Omicron cases forces meat workers to stay home.
Already, some abattoirs in NSW and Victoria have been forced to close their doors for short periods, while many are operating on a skeleton staff.
In some instances, less than 30 per cent of rostered workers have presented for work.
Fears are the COVID-19 wave currently hitting Queensland will see the country's largest beef processing precinct hit hard within the next few days, flowing through to severe mince, rump and t-bone shortages on retail shelves.
Industry leaders are calling for immediate public health order exemptions for meat workers who are asymptomatic close contacts, access to free or low-cost rapid antigen tests and prioritised PCR testing and turnarounds.
Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive officer Patrick Hutchinson described the current situation as the single biggest threat for major impact on the food supply chain in Australia since the pandemic emerged.
For an industry that was already struggling under the weight of severe labour shortages, there is zero leeway to lock people who are COVID-19 negative out of the workforce, abattoir bosses said.
"We are experiencing an unprecedented wave of staffing unpredictability," Mr Hutchinson said.
"As COVID spreads in the community, our industry workers are unable to present for work for at least seven days should someone in their family or household test positive, under the current national protocol.
"This is an industry where workers living together is common."
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Processors had invested heavily in COVID-safe measures and RAT tests were undertaken daily on site but there are now issues with a lack of available tests.
"As we face the Omicron surge, we need Federal and State Governments to prioritise the nation's food chain production and supply, in the same way that the health care sector is continuing to operate under unprecedented pressure," Mr Hutchinson said.
"We don't want to see a situation of widespread supply shortages exacerbated by panic buying."
The pandemic situation is exacerbating an already hugely challenging meat supply landscape, with tight livestock supply and subsequent record prices prompting many industry leaders and analysts to warn of plant shutdowns, and even complete closures, in 2022.
Thomas Elders Markets' Year in Review for cattle said the annual average beef processor margin for 2021 came in at a loss of $321.
The last quarter of 2021 saw the margin dip to the lowest monthly point on record since 2000 with per-head losses extending beyond $400, according to TEM data.
"Historically, there has been a high correlation between industry rationalisation and processor closure during times when margins remain in negative territory for an extended period of time," TEM analyst Matt Dalgleish said.
"It is unlikely that much of 2022 will provide any relief for processors so be prepared for further industry consolidation within the processing sector."