SEVENTEEN months after fire ravaged its Murray Bridge meat processing plant in South Australia, Thomas Foods International has announced plans to rebuild on a site not far from the original facility.
The project, which the company said would cost ‘some hundreds of millions of dollars’ is expected to see the first stage, for beef processing, completed by November next year.
Since the devastating Murray Bridge fire in January 2018, TFI has had beef service kills done at the O’Connor’s plant near Pakenham, VIC.
Chief executive officer Darren Thomas said the new facility would be built on a greenfield site 10km from the town centre.
“Today we re-affirm the commitment we made on day-one,” Mr Thomas said in a statement.
“We plan to build the best, most advanced multi-species processing facility in Australia, if not the world. We want our facility to be world class in adapting the latest advancements in technology, efficiency, environmental sustainability, animal welfare and workplace safety.”
He said the project would be the single largest investment by TFI in its 30-year history, and on a scale not seen in the processing industry for many years.
“It’s also our long-term commitment to our community, staff, customers and livestock suppliers throughout South Australia and Australia,” Mr Thomas said.
While production will gradually scale-up after the new plant starts operations, beef capacity will increase from 1200 head per day in the old facility to around 1400 (single daily shift basis), Mr Thomas told Beef Central. When the sheepmeat stage is completed, sheep and lamb capacity is expected to grow from 11,000/day to 14,000/day.
Once fully operational, the new plant is expected to create around 2000 jobs, 400 of which would be required in the initial stages of production.
A dedicated project team led by Darren Thomas and chief operating officer David McKay will include internal and external designers, engineers and planners to drive the development.
“Today is a very exciting milestone for TFI and our local community of Murray Bridge,” Mr McKay said.
“We’ve secured the land for our site and have worked closely with a team of internationally renowned process engineers to come up with a world-class environmentally sustainable design. From the fire has come a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity to build a brand new flagship facility that will service our global operations for many decades to come,” he said.
“This will be a technically advanced facility to deliver the highest standards in beef and lamb processing.”
The plant and its capacity will be built in a staged approach with the beef processing facilities to be completed first. TFI has managed to spread some of its former Murray Bridge lamb processing operations across other company lamb facilities at Lobethal and Tamworth.
The final stages of the development will provide for a considerable expansion and greater footprint to that of the previous site in Murray Bridge, Mr Thomas said.
While an exact date for the start of construction is yet to be determined, the company said it was positioned for work to begin as soon as possible.
It is working closely with the relevant State Government agencies and expects initial production at the site could commence as early as November 2020.
Mr Thomas said he was enormously proud of the TFI staff who had worked tirelessly since the fire to make the re-build announcement possible.
“From Day One, we committed to rebuilding our Murray Bridge operations,” he said. “The fire was a major disruption to the business and the lives of many of our people, not just in Murray Bridge but right across our operations.
“But we’re a positive and resilient family company. Rather than lament what was lost, we’ve chosen to focus on emerging bigger, better and stronger. We’ve chosen to focus on the exciting future for our company and the community of Murray Bridge.”
“The enormous dedication and outstanding work by everyone involved in this process is overwhelming. I’m extremely grateful to all our staff who have put in so much hard work, our loyal customers and suppliers who’ve stuck with us, our insurers and the external support we’ve received across the community.
Mr Thomas acknowledged the support received from all levels of Government, State Government agencies and the personal interest taken by so many political leaders.
“This has been a truly collaborative approach to bring about an outcome with such broad community benefits,” he said.
While no direct government funding support will flow to TFI for the project, the South Australian Premier this morning announced a $24 million state/federal package supporting the project, that will be devoted to community and regional infrastructure upgrades, including roads and utilities.
Beef Central asked what impact the unusual ‘luxury’ of being able to start with a blank sheet of paper in the planning and plant design phase would have on features like automation and technology adoption.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to adopt world’s best practise,” Mr Thomas said.
He said both he and Mr McKay had ‘travelled the globe’ over the past 18 months looking at processing designs and technology that could be incorporated into the new facility.
“From the employee perspective alone, looking at ergonomics and ensuring that the food processing facility of the future can support the workforce – and the workforce can support it – we will be looking at opportunities like robotics,” Mr McKay said.
“The Australian meat industry has made some real advancements in meat processing, and from what we have seen around the world, we can take it to the next level with the new Murray Bridge facility,” he said.
Other opportunities, such as (the greater adoption of) green energy would help make the new facility not only more efficient, but more sustainable.
The new construction will incorporate a fully-integrated meat processing facility including new kill floor, boning room and cold storage, making the entire original Murray Bridge site redundant.
TFI documented early in the post-fire period that the business was well-insured, and that a process would be worked through with insurers to help get the business back on its feet.
The Australian Meat Industry Council has supported today’s announcement that TFI will build a world-class, multi-million dollar meat processing facility will in South Australia.
AMIC chief executive Patrick Hutchinson offered congratulations to AMIC member Thomas Foods International for making this bold investment and demonstrating its commitment to the Australian industry.
“Last year’s fire was, of course, devastating for the business and for the local community. TFI has chosen not just to rebuild, but to step it up a notch, taking on a greenfield site and developing a world-standard facility,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“This is a reflection not only of the company’s commitment to its community but of the industry’s commitment to securing and growing Australia’s position as a world leader. Today is a good day.”
Mr Hutchinson said the investment showed that there was a strong appetite for growth in the sector, plus plenty of market opportunity, and with the right government support the processing industry was on track for a great future.
“We need to get the policy settings right around energy, access to labour and regulatory burden, and the first step to achieving that is for government to really recognise the important contribution the red meat sector makes to our economy,” he said.
“We’re keen to work closely with governments, state and federal, to support our industry, and we look forward to more positive announcements for our sector like this great initiative that has been launched today.”
Australia’s meat sector provides 55,000 full time jobs, mostly in regional and rural areas of Australia. The industry is worth $22 billion annually and meat is the seventh-largest export commodity in the country.
TFI is Australia’s largest 100pc family-owned meat processor. Processing high quality Australian sheep, lamb, goats and beef, the TFI group supplies more than 85 countries, with operations in Australia and overseas including in the US, China, Japan and Europe. Since the January 3, 2018 Murray Bridge fire, TFI has grown its international operations including opening an office in Japan and entering into an equity partnership with Luiten Food in the Netherlands.