FRESH food is likely to be in even shorter supply on supermarket shelves in the next few weeks as supply chains are pushed to breaking point by COVID-19 infections.
Government moves to ease isolation rules so that close contacts with no symptoms can return to the front line will be ineffective without access to Rapid Antigen Tests, food business bosses have warned.
Frustrations are boiling over in agriculture circles that better plans to address food supply chain disruptions have not been forthcoming, given the months of warnings about COVID waves and close to two years of the threat being constantly at the doorstep.
Even chicken king KFC has now been affected, issuing a message on its website apologising to customers for 'some of their faves' not being available.
"This isn't the way we wanted to start the year. Please be kind to each other, and our staff, as they do their best to provide the chicken we all love," the fast food giant said.
Chicken shortages are now widespread in supermarkets. Most major processors are operating at just 50 per cent of their required staff.
Executive director of the Australian Chicken Meat Federation Vivien Kite said the chicken supply situation was deteriorating daily, with businesses in the supply chain experiencing increasing staff shortages and the number of birds unable to be processed growing.
Products that are the most challenging to supply are those that require most preparation or are the most labour intensive to produce, such as cut-up, de-boned, skinless, and value-added products. Simpler, less labour-intensive products such as whole chicken should continue to be available.
"Staff shortages are being seen right across the industry, but are particularly impacting the processing, packing, further processing, distribution and transport sectors of the chicken supply chain," Dr Kite said.
"There are plenty of chickens out on farms, but just not enough people to pick them up, process them and distribute chicken products to stores."
Like fellow representatives across the red meat, fruit and vegetable and dairy industries, ACMF has welcomed the liberalisation of isolation guidelines but said the changes must be adopted nationally, and supported with priority access to RATS.
Critical food workers who are close contacts can only return to the job if they are vaccinated, are asymptomatic and have a COVID-negative test.
That call for priority RATs has been backed by the Australian Food and Grocery Council.
Chief executive officer Tanya Barden said the changes to isolation requirements were an acknowledgement of the serious challenge facing essential industries such as food and grocery manufacturing.
"However these changes will have little effect on securing food supplies because of the industry's limited access to RAT kits," she said.
"For these arrangements to be effective, food and grocery manufacturers need urgent, priority access to RAT kits or governments need to take a more pragmatic approach to testing requirements such as the day 6 testing in Queensland.
"We urge all state and territory governments to develop a uniform approach that will allow asymptomatic workers to return to their critically important jobs, subject to strict controls to protect public health, so that they can continue the work of supplying food and groceries to the nation."
Some supermarkets have introduced product limits, others are urging customers to be flexible and open to substitution, and butchers are reporting mince sales in particular are starting to skyrocket, as they did in the weeks of initial pandemic panic buying.
McDonald's, meanwhile, continues to offer its full menu in restaurants.
"Like many businesses, McDonald's Australia has been carefully managing our supply chain - the bulk of which is based right here in Australia," a Maccas spokesperson said.
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The story Fresh food shortages to continue as RATs remain elusive first appeared on Farm Online.