Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW

7 May 2020

NEIL MITCHELL: On the line, the Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud. Good morning.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning. Good to be with you.

NEIL MITCHELL: Well thanks for your time. Are you aware of any cases in other abattoirs?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Not that I've been made aware of and in fact, I wasn't aware of this one until 30th April even though a meat worker was tested positive on 24th. So we're not looking for recriminations and I think you touched on it very eloquently - these are just about learnings and I think in these fluid times we need to all be mature enough to say we can always do things better and that's not just state governments, that's Federal Government as well. But have the maturity to say let's learn from this because these situations and these learnings can be transposed into other jurisdictions as well.

NEIL MITCHELL: Well it wasn't handled perfectly?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Not- not from what I've seen and I'm still investigating it. But the fact that my department only found out about it through gossip on the 27th, 28th but we weren't formally notified by Victoria Health, I'm advised late yesterday, until 30th April. We had two permanent meat inspectors there and two transient inspectors that were in there during March, April and in fact two of those transient inspectors then moved on to another processing plant.

So it's important that there is transparency and, and swift action in notifying, particularly those that come into contact, so that we don't spread this virus. And that's really the essence of this. I'm not looking for any recriminations, everyone's trying to do that at the moment. But we just want to make sure we get a better protocol on this.

NEIL MITCHELL: No. No. No. I understand. I understand. These inspectors you're talking about, have they got test results back?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: They have, they're both- all four are negative but they're in self-isolation - so they and their families can- can ease some of the concerns they had. But also they're no different to the rest of the workers in there and I feel for those that have contracted it and those families that have been impacted. This is a horrible virus but that's why it's so important that tracing happens as quickly as we can, and it shows why the tracing app is so important as well.

NEIL MITCHELL: So when should you have been told of this? Of the case?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, I would've thought, considering the nature and the importance of our supply- food supply chains, that as soon as the, the actual owners notified Victorian Health that we should've been notified as these people are transient…

NEIL MITCHELL: Well Victorian Health says they notified the, the owners.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well we weren't formally notified until 30th April and we didn't get notification until the 27th, 28th from the owners and our workers were already there. So we actually found out by gossip on the guys yesterday more so than anything.

So there's some real learnings there and I think that's an important aspect that we need to look at because this is an important component of our food security and our supply chains at our abattoirs.

NEIL MITCHELL: Our abattoirs are in a vulnerable position, aren't they?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: They are, but I've got to say that the industry themselves have probably been more proactive than most industries in putting in place protocols. Obviously, some can still do more but the industry themselves were forward leaning in creating protocols. And in fact, there's a FSANZ standard, which is where our food standards come from, that states, federal and New Zealand come together and work out the protocols which have been put in place.

NEIL MITCHELL: But isn't this part of the problem? Well probably one of the issues that we learn from? Did you not personally, or your department back in March, recommend, hang on, we might be heading into something of a pandemic here. We need to adjust the protocols. Didn't you do that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I've, yes, definitely.

NEIL MITCHELL: Did anything happen?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well unfortunately only two states have formally replied to me and that is the ACT and Tasmania. Effectively, I've raised it at every agricultural ministers meeting, we'd be having them weekly up until recently, that we needed to adhere and adopt the FSANZ standards and the protocols around any outbreak in an abattoir. And there was all verbal agreement but only, and then

NEIL MITCHELL: And nothing was done?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's why I wanted to get formal ratification that we would adhere to those protocols.

NEIL MITCHELL: If those protocols have been followed, there'd have been less chance we'll be looking at this cluster at Cedar Meats?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I don't want to speculate but I think that's one of the things we need to explore, and I think is a good opportunity to explore that.

NEIL MITCHELL: What are the protocols? What did you want done?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well it clearly identifies what happens in terms of an employee that contracts it, and also before and how and giving some advice to the industry about how they should interact on the floor, and then in work rooms. And then if there is an outbreak what is the protocol around being able to identify those workers nearby that they should also be tested and isolated so that there continues to be continuity.

NEIL MITCHELL: And when did you recommend it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That was one of the first Ag Min meetings back in early March, late February. And then I've written to all the all the state ministers in March, April to, because they were giving verbal assurances they agreed to that but-

NEIL MITCHELL: Has Victoria replied?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. They have not replied.

NEIL MITCHELL: Okay. Thank you very much for your time.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

NEIL MITCHELL: Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.