Running on empty

18 Jun, 2008 10:30 AM

WA'S meat processing sector has been thrown into disarray as the full extent of the state's gas crisis hits home.

As the impact of the energy shortage starts to be felt, two of WA's biggest abattoirs have been working frantically to shore up supplies to continue to operate.

WA's gas supply was cut by a third after an explosion at Apache Energy's Varanus Island plant off the Pilbara coast earlier this month.

Harvey Beef chief executive officer Michael Rapattoni said his plant was still on a daily allocation of gas and the numbers of cattle being processed was decided each day.

"At the moment we are processing 600-630 per day and are hoping we will not fall below that number," Mr Rapattoni said.

"We met with Agriculture Minister Kim Chance and Alinta Gas on Friday and informed them of how severe the situation would be if we stopped processing.

"The meeting was more about informing of them of where we were at and the scale of the impact on many communities and livestock producers across the state if we were forced to stop processing completely."

Mr Rapattoni said the company was determined to maintain slaughter numbers to ensure all staff were kept working.

"That is a priority for us at the moment, we want to continue processing enough cattle to ensure we can keep our workers going full time," he said.

"We have been building our staff numbers over the last two years and we do not want to undo all that good work by losing them now.

"We are also a major employer within the Harvey area and it would be felt in the community if we had to lay people off."

Mr Rapattoni said the crisis could not have come at a worse time for the processor.

"It is disappointing as we are in the process of really ramping up our output and were aiming to be slaughtering 5000 head per week within the next couple of months," he said.

"The spring flush isn't far away either and a bottleneck at that time of year is not what the industry needs.

"We are on a two- to three-month notification at the moment, but we are hoping to be back up to full production before that to ensure that we can cope with the increase in numbers come spring."

Mr Rapattoni said the forced drop in capacity would not affect domestic supplies of beef.

"We are very aware of supplying the domestic market and protecting that market," he said.

"Our priority is to supply WA consumers and our recent commitment to the Buy West Eat Best program supports that."

One processor who thought it had escaped any impact from the crisis was the Craig Mostyn Group's Linley Valley Pork abattoir.

Chief executive officer David Lock said while the company's natural gas supply is assured, it discovered late last week that supplies of liquid CO2 had been affected.

"Our CO2 supplier, Air Liquide has claimed Force Majeure because its supplier of ammonia has been forced to stop production," Mr Lock said.

"We use CO2 to euthanise the pigs prior to slaughter and do not have the systems in place to stun the animals any other way."

Linley Valley is WA's largest pork processor, slaughtering 10,500 pigs a week.

Mr Lock said they had now secured enough CO2 to process at full capacity for the next three weeks.

He said the Government's commitment to scaling back the state's desalination plant had freed up 20t of CO2.

"Of that we were able to source 3.5 tonnes and now have enough supply on hand to run at full capacity for 21 days," he said.

"The very short term problem is sorted out and now we are looking to remain at the top of the priority list.

"We only need two tonnes per week to run at full capacity and hopefully we will be able to source that each week.

"We have had offers from a Chinese company to supply us with CO2, but price is obviously a consideration for that option."



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