Updated 4pm, 4 Jan
THOMAS Foods International’s flagship Murray Bridge beef and lamb processing plant in South Australia was engulfed by fire yesterday evening.
Major structural damage has occurred in the plant’s near-new adjoining beef and lamb boning rooms – some of the most modern in Australia – but it remains unclear how extensive damage to other parts of the site are until a full assessment is made.
Welding sparks during routine maintenance near a ‘highly combustible’ wall (apparently foam-filled insulated panelling) has been blamed as the cause of the fire.
Murray Bridge is the largest multi-species meat processing plants in Australia, capable of processing 11,000 lambs and 1200 head of cattle per day.
The fire broke out around 6.30pm on Wednesday, and quickly took hold, with huge plumes of smoke visible from more than 50 kilometres away.
Eighty firefighters from South Australia’s Metropolitan Fire Service and Country Fire Service were battling the blaze, before an extra 20 firefighters were rushed in. The MFS said firefighters were pumping water from a nearby lagoon to assist with the water supply. Local Murray Bridge residents were advised to stay indoors and shut their doors and windows.
It’s understood the facility was fully-insured, but given the size of the project, reconstruction could take at least 12 to 18 months, an experienced processing contact told Beef Central.
An updated statement from the company’s chief executive Darren Thomas this afternoon said:
Thomas Foods International wishes to thank the State’s emergency service crews for their rapid response and outstanding efforts in helping contain the fire at our Murray Bridge processing facilities.
Thankfully, and most importantly, all staff on site at the time of the fire were evacuated safely and promptly, which is testament to the safety procedures we have in place at Murray Bridge and the professionalism of our internal response team. Management also acted swiftly to ensure all livestock were safely relocated. Personally I’ve also been heartened by the large number of messages of support we’ve received from the local community, our customers and industry.
We’re currently assessing the damage caused by the fire and it’s still too early to tell the full extent. The safety and wellbeing of all our staff is our highest priority. Staff will not be returning to the site until it has been declared completely safe to do so. Our management is working closely with the relevant authorities in that regard and we are keeping all our staff notified. The company will continue to stand by and support our staff including providing access to counselling services. Our company has already begun making alternative processing arrangements across our group operations and networks to continue to manage our customer requirements.
Thomas Foods International is a resilient company and we’re committed to our world-class operations at Murray Bridge. Once we have a full understanding of the nature of the damage we will begin planning the necessary repair work to ensure the site is back to capacity in processing the highest quality Australian meat for our national and export markets as soon as possible.
TFI also operates smaller lamb and goat facilities at Lobethal in South Australia, Tamworth, New South Wales, and a decommissioned plant at Wallangarra, Queensland.
SA Police advised that the fire had been contained to one building, but that extensive damage had been caused. Investigators will visit the premises in the morning.
Thomas Foods International is Australia’s largest family-owned food processing company and one of the state’s most successful businesses, with annual revenue of more than $1.4 billion. The company exports lamb, beef mutton and goatmeat to more than 80 international companies, totalling about 70pc of overall meat production, plus domestic clients including Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, McDonalds, IGA and Drake Supermarkets.
TFI Murray Bridge is the town’s largest employer, with a workforce of about 1400 staff. Mr Thomas was unable to confirm whether all Murray Bridge employees jobs would be secure following the blaze, but suggested some staff could be relocated to other company processing sites.
It’s expected that some of the plant’s smallstock production will be shifted to other company facilities, while ‘further announcements’ would be made regarding beef production. Both Coles and Woolworths said their meat supply would be unaffected.
“As the extent of the damage becomes clearer, we’ll understand what the next stage will be,” Mr Thomas said.
TFI is now faced with an enormous logistical challenge to try to maintain production of both beef and lamb. Lots of possibilities emerge, which no doubt will be explored in coming days and weeks.
Murray Bridge’s killfloor, freezing and chilling infrastructure remain intact and in serviceable condition, raising the possibility of slaughtering and chilling on-site, and relocating chilled carcases to a boning facility elsewhere. That raises it’s own problems in regulatory and licensing, especially for export markets, however.
For smallstock, the most likely outcome is a move to double-shift, double-bone at the company’s Lobethal plant in South Australia, to soak up a portion of the Murray Bridge lamb kill. Lobethal’s capacity in that form would be limited by freezing capacity, but carton meat could be relocated back to Murray Bridge’s near-new plate freezing infrastructure, still intact. Shifts at the company’s Tamworth facility in NSW could rise to six or even seven days, to further ease lamb processing pressure.
The beef kill looks more problematic, with no obvious alternatives within the company’s remaining plants to shift kills elsewhere, observers say. Lobethal’s beef chain was removed years ago.
The most likely outcomes for beef would appear to be temporary service kill arrangements using other export licensed abattoirs in Victoria. The company currently has around 10,000 head of cattle on feed at its Iranda Beef feedlot in the state’s southeast, which present a more immediate problem. TFI has assured agents today that it will be in the market for smallstock as normal in coming weeks, but beef supply looks most at risk.
TFI spent $30 million upgrading its Murray Bridge beef and lamb boning rooms in 2015 and 2013, respectively.
The state-of-the-art fabrication rooms were described at the time as a clear demonstration of the sort of enormous financial commitment necessary by export processors across the continent in keeping Australian beef and sheepmeat at the forefront of world standards for product and fabrication quality, hygiene and efficiency.
TFI’s new boning room project was part of a much more extensive upgrade process at the company’s flagship Murray Bridge plant, designed to not only lift the facility’s throughput, but deliver greater efficiencies and enhance workplace conditions for staff.
The investment placed the company at the forefront of trade, enabling the incorporation of cutting-edge technology, increased shelf-life and processing efficiency, as well a expanding volume.
Murray Bridge has been the focus of considerable investment by TFI over the past six years. The first stage of the upgrade was the new beef killfloor completed in 2013, followed by chiller upgrades, rendering and other infrastructure to keep pace.
TFI chief operating officer David McKaMr McKay said during the launch of the new boning room that there was a natural tendency across the TFI business to move to a greater proportion of chilled over frozen product, for quality reasons, and the new Murray Bridge boning room had contribute substantially to that. “But having said that, we’ve had a strong chilled business for some considerable time,” he said.
The new boning facility boasts the latest technology in refrigeration, conveyor systems, sortation, vacuum packaging and hygiene. One of its unique features is an industry-first trim sortation system used to analyse, mix and batch trimmings into specific lean meat grades, allowing further value-adding along the chain.
“We’ve been able to adapt the X-ray technology to grade our boneless trimmings as part of the sorting process, as opposed to doing it visually,” Mr McKay told Beef Central in 2015.
“Through a blending/mixing facility and multi-batching the product, we’ve been able to automate and upgrade our trim production process. It’s about taking trimmings from a large-scale production facility to their highest possible value, by blending-up, not blending down to a lowest common denominator. It’s delivering a better blend and a greater trim yield,” he said.
The Murray Bridge boning room layout employs a single-chain using side-chain boning, with efficient product flow and the use of some ‘robotic assist’ puller systems to deliver greater efficiency and improve ergonomics for staff.
A unique design in the first phase of the boning chain is the ability to elevate the entire forequarter boning team’s platform, allowing them to handle both tenderstretch and Achilles-hung side-boned bodies. No tenderstretching currently occurs at the plant, but the platforms provide built-in capability to allow it to happen, if required.
“The design and layout is about delivering boning room yield, product quality and shelf-life to its absolute maximum,” Mr McKay said.
Significant use of conveyors transport material around the room efficiently, and an advanced packaging system is used to enable real-time flow of cuts into the vacuum packaging, and on into the carton. There is extensive use of CIP (Clean in Place) belts in the conveyor system.
There is also a strong focus on automation around the packaging of cuts, and high vacuum packaging rates through good proximity of the pumps to the vac machines. Three new large rotary Sealed Air Cryovac machines are installed, each handling up to 28 cuts a minute.
A streamlined refrigeration system delivers optimum air-flow to the room, and includes washdown cycles to get the room cleaned and dry very quickly after a shift is completed.
A purpose-built air handling facility provides an efficient supply and return air program to keep the room temperature constant, and deliver a well-filtered, clean and hygienic atmosphere in which to operate.
The $30 million spent on the project included the new boning floor itself, plus additional expenditure on value-adding and plate freezing upgrades, in order to keep pace with future greater throughput. Two new large plate freezers were installed during 2015, but it is uncertain last night whether they were damaged by fire.