COVID-19 cuts deep as Middle East lamb market vanishes into thin air

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Coronavirus travel restrictions and a ban on international passenger flights has created major headaches for one of Tasmania’s leading meat exporters and its employees.

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Processor Tasmanian Quality Meats [TQM], which normally sends about 6,000 chilled lamb and mutton carcases to the Middle East each week, has been forced to stand down dozens of workers after orders dried up.

The Middle East is Australia’s biggest air-freight customer for lamb and mutton and makes up half of TQM’s business.

TQM has laid off 44 casual workers at its Cressy processing plant, about 30 kilometres south of Launceston, and cut operations to three days a week.

TQM meat is exported as cargo in the holds of passenger aircraft.

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Managing director Brian Oliver said orders from the Middle East fell by half three weeks ago as the coronavirus crisis bit — then stopped altogether when countries banned in-bound travel.

“There’s been a couple of charter flights across, but [at] extremely high prices, ” he said.

“In the end we couldn’t deliver to the countries.

“Any flights that had to go to Dubai, and [were] then offloaded and taken to another country in the Middle East — Saudi, Bahrain, Jordan — they wouldn’t accept any product.”

The loss of the market has been costly for the business.

“We’re doing some mutton through the boning room” said Mr Oliver.

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“That goes out on containers frozen, but the majority is domestic lamb.”

Mr Oliver said the size of the plant restricted their ability to ramp up domestic production.

He said the company was still planning on expanding its facility this year with help from an existing government grant.

“You wonder whether the amount of money that’s going out with the stimulus package, is the government going to put a stall on any grants,” he said.

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“There’s been no talk of that, but you wonder where all the money is going to come from and where they’ll need to tighten the belt in certain areas.”

Australia’s largest meat processing company, JBS Australia, said it would continue to operate its Longford beef plant in Tasmania and ensure ongoing employment.

Head of corporate affairs, John Berry said he had been working closely with the Tasmanian Department of State Growth on transport and logistics.

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