THE meat processing industry is desperately trying to resolve problems with the skilled workers' visa program designed to combat staff shortages in the industry.
The Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) met Federal Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone last week to help solve understaffing in sectors of the meat processing industry.
AMIC chief executive Kevin Cottrell said the meeting had been frank and positive but no solution had been achieved.
Problems in the meat industry arose when the Immigration Department stopped processing applications under the 457 visa program amid concerns about worker's qualifications.
The media had reported incidences of employers in the building and manufacturing trade employing under-qualified overseas staff, under the 457 program.
Mr Cottrell was confident the meat industry had not wrongly employed people.
"I think we have been caught up in a larger issue with visas generally," he said.
Mr Cottrell said the meat industry employed overseas people with the minimum equivalent of an Australian Certificate Three in trade skills.
"The people we want to bring in are highly skilled," he said.
The visa application backlog has hit the boning, slaughtering and slicing sectors of the meat industry hardest.
Mr Cottrell said he remained hopeful the problem could be resolved in the short-term.
"In some skilled areas they need workers now," he said.
"I think the industry would be concerned if they cannot get some movement on this issue in the next four to six weeks."
Mr Cottrell was hoping for further meetings with the Immigration Department this week to discuss the issue further.
South Australian-based meat processor T&R Pastoral has been fortunate not to be affected by the worker shortage as badly as others.
T&R has effectively used the 457 visa program in the past, along with local casual employment, to help fill nearly 1000 positions at its Murray Bridge plant.
But T&R director Darren Thomas said the company was still working closely with AMIC and the Federal Government to help resolve the visa issue.
It was still too early to speculate on labour sources at the company's recently acquired North Dandalup processing plant in WA, Mr Thomas said.
"We are only just completing the first stage of a three-phase approach to starting up."
T&R was still liaising with the State Government on operational matters and a timeframe for the re-opening of the North Dandalup plant would become clearer within two weeks.
Meanwhile, the US could resume beef exports to Japan if US meat packing facilities got approval from Japanese Government inspectors.
Japanese authorities will inspect 35 export-accredited plants, as well as beef producers, in the US over the next four weeks.
Japan is expected to announce next month if it will lift its three-year ban on US beef.
About 2000 tonnes of US beef stored in Japanese warehouses can be released directly to the market if the ban is lifted.
A re-entry by the US is not expected to greatly reduce Australian beef export tonnages, but prices have been predicted to ease.
Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) chairman Don Heatley said although prices would fall, they would remain above pre-mad cow disease average prices.
Mr Heatley said a US re-entry to the Japanese beef market could lead to more consistent trading conditions.
"If the US does rejoin the market the Australian industry has to rise to the challenge and effectively meet the increased level of market competition," he said.
"Australia is in a strong position in Japan because we have nurtured and developed our most significant advantage, that is our safe and natural image.
"Strong customer preferences have been developed for the Australian product."
Under agreed protocols between Japan and the US, only beef from cattle 20-months or younger will be allowed entry into the market.
Japanese inspectors are also expected to conduct ongoing random audits of US processing plants.