4 Mar 2022

Omicron spread causing staff shortages in poultry industry

8:27 am on 4 March 2022

The poultry industry is reporting staff shortages of 45 percent at some Auckland plants as Covid-19 cases continue to rise.

Chicken farm.

File photo. Photo: 123RF

New Zealanders consume about 125 million chickens each year - but the strain on processing capacity is forcing the industry to revise the number of chicks being hatched to help ensure farms do not become overwhelmed.

Poultry Industry Association executive director Michael Brooks said prior to the Omicron outbreak its members had already been struggling with staff shortages of about 10 to 15 percent, with the usual supply of migrant workers and backpackers cut off.

"I'm now hearing as a result of Covid that you've got some plants where they're [experiencing] 45 percent loss of staff, so they are really working hard."

Brooks said affected companies would be looking at reducing their production, including the number of chicks and chickens coming online. He said the focus would be on continuing to supply products that were less labour intensive, such as chicken carcasses and breast meat.

"Unlike red meat, you can't put the animals back out in the paddock ... there's been work on reducing the flow of product coming through, but that takes a little bit of time."

Brooks said even though some staff were recovering, others were then catching the virus and he expected the next three or four weeks were going to be a "very difficult time".

Plants in Auckland and Waikato were harder hit by the Covid-19 disruption, with processors further south reporting fewer issues, he said.

He said the association was keeping the Ministry for Primary Industries updated on the challenges it was facing.

MPI deputy director-general of food safety Vince Arbuckle said it was aware that Omicron continued to present staff capacity challenges for the poultry industry at varying levels, but it was managing through.

"Animal welfare is not an issue at present, however, we continue to monitor this closely."

Vince Arbuckle said throughout the pandemic, MPI had worked closely with primary sector bodies and large operators to ensure they had the latest information and guidance. This included the poultry industry, he said.

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