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Queensland: work bans on Australian ports a major concern for the beef export industry

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Well, the waterfront dispute could have a disastrous effect on one of our prized exports, chilled beef, to Japan. Beef exporters in Tasmania and Victoria are already talking about possible lay-offs and in Queensland, where more than 60 per cent of our export beef is processed and shipped, the situation could head the same way. The Queensland Meat Exporters' Association handles between 55 and $70 million worth of chilled beef each month and, according to its chairman, Jack Mulheran, the industry could suffer long-term damage if the dispute continues. Mr Mulheran told Anthony Fennell that he believed Japanese buyers were already getting anxious.

JACK MULHERAN: Hasn't had a lot of effect in Queensland. I believe it's had more effect in the southern, or those people shipping through the port of Melbourne. But, if it escalates any further, it will affect shipments through here. There are two operators of terminals here and, at this stage, the main effect has been with one that probably, I think, only about 10 per cent or more of the chilled beef trade moves through. But, if it escalates any further, it's going to have a big effect.

ANTHONY FENNELL: Now, I understand there's talk of maybe having to stand people down in Tasmania and Victoria. Queensland handles 60 per cent of the chilled beef exports to Japan. What's the likelihood of stand-downs in Queensland if it continues?

JACK MULHERAN: Well, if it continues, and if it escalates, obviously that would be one of the effects of it. Through this port, we would load on average between 800 and 1,000 containers of chilled beef a month, and if there was an escalation and that trade was disrupted, meatworks' operators would have no recourse other than to curtail their activities.

ANTHONY FENNELL: Well, if that trade was disrupted, I mean, how long would you have before the Japanese started to get quite upset about this?

JACK MULHERAN: I imagine that some of them would be .. they'd be upset right now, in relation to some product that obviously is tied up in southern ports. But it will create a lot of problems in Japan because they'll have a situation where they'll be receiving no chilled beef and then, when the thing is ultimately finished, of course everyone will be seeking to fill their commitments at short notice, and I imagine that that would then create a situation where there'll be more chilled beef available on the market up there than it can handle.

ANTHONY FENNELL: So, what is that going to do? It's going to affect the prices, is it, in the future?

JACK MULHERAN: It will affect .. initially, it would affect the profitability of the Japanese, I imagine, more than it would affect the profitability of us here. But, from a long-term point of view, any disruptions of this nature to a trade, obviously affect everybody, as far as price is concerned.

ANTHONY FENNELL: Now, what about frozen beef? Is that as big a problem?

JACK MULHERAN: No, it's not as big a problem. The problem with frozen beef is more a problem of money tied up. Obviously, with frozen beef, you can keep it. There is product that was committed to vessels going mainly to the United States, some to Japan, that have been delayed or have been transferred to other vessels, and I think they're more manageable, those problems, but obviously, from packers' point of view, they've got money tied up that they're not going to be able to get because of product that can't move forward.