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The lamb comes from the WA Meat Marketing Cooperative (WAMMCO), a farmer-owned meat processor based in Katanning, at a time when the entire global transport industry is under significant stress.
"We're not able to get the flights and the shipping services we need," WAMMCO marketing manager Damien Giumelli said.
"[Trade to] the Middle East and China is flowing okay, but to the valuable North American market we're encountering some problems."
Since January, WAMMCO has been transporting chilled lamb to Sydney and Melbourne ports by rail because of a lack of suitable US-bound ships docking in WA.
"[But now] the vessels that would normally go out of Sydney and Melbourne are actually bypassing those ports to save some time. So the only option we have is to go to Brisbane," Mr Giumelli said.
At least one more train journey from Perth to Brisbane has already been scheduled.
The United States consistently accounts for between one quarter and one third of Australia's lamb exports: $811 million AUD in the 2020-21 financial year.(Source: Meat and Livestock Australia Limited
)Chasing a premium marketNorth America is Australia's largest lamb export market by volume and value.
Nonetheless, the added cost of a transcontinental rail journey is difficult to justify for exporters.
"I can't be specific, but it's adding quite a few cents per kilo to our cost which we try to pass onto the customer as best we can," Mr Giumelli said.
"But it's not a sustainable situation. It's just too much cost in the business."
In June, lamb exports to the US exceeded $100 million for the first time.
Chilled lamb products have a shelf life of around 80 days, frozen products last much longer.(Supplied: WAMMCO
)The extended journey from WAMMCO's Katanning abattoir to a North American customer is also putting pressure on the 80-day shelf life of chilled lamb.
"Not only have we got to get it across the country, but the shipping transit times have blown out," Mr Giumelli said.
"It would be 30 days normally out of Fremantle [but now] it's five or six to get to Brisbane and as much as 50 or 60 days to ship."
No port in a pandemicWAMMCO has continued shipping frozen lamb products from Fremantle as they are not at risk of spoiling en-route to international markets.
"The reason we don't have capacity out of Fremantle isn't a lack of vessels," Mr Giumelli said.
"Typically we pass [US-bound] vessels through Singapore, but [shipping companies] won't give us space out of Singapore because vessels there are being diverted to the Asia-North America trade."
Trade between Asia and the United States has risen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, driven strongly by imports to the US.(Source: US Census Bureau
)Another major West Australian lamb processor, Fletcher's International, has not resorted to railing its product cross-country but has transport issues of its own.
"Shipping is an absolute nightmare at the moment," Fletcher's WA manager Greg Cross said.
"Rescheduling is something we rarely used to do. Now we have to do it almost every day."
The flow of cargo through Fremantle Port is under significant stress from global shipping supply shortages and industrial action.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni
)It remains to be seen how long WAMMCO will need to rail its lamb cross-country but the global shipping supply shortage appears likely to continue.
"What needs to happen is more capacity needs to come into the industry," Mr Giumelli said.
"We've heard 120 vessels are under construction with another 150 on order to be produced after that.
"But the timeline is expected to be 2-3 years before they come into service.
"We might be facing challenges for quite a while."
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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