But the truth was the flight was privately arranged by a consortium of Chinese-Australian business figures, including Zhi, who were looking to onsell the products.
Zhi told The Age this week that he did not want the aircraft to return to China empty; he wanted it full of meat for the hungry people of Wuhan. When an initial plan to fill it with beef from a Victorian meatworks fell through, Zhi turned to Cedar Meats for 35 tonnes of its mutton.
“Cedar has a fantastic name for their product in China,” he said. “I have to fight to get it. I have to kiss arse.”
Back in Australia, Cedar Meats is attracting the kind of attention no business wants. On Friday the number of COVID-19 cases connected to the meatworks rose to 71, with an aged care worker, a nurse and a schoolboy now affected.
The company’s quarantined workforce and their families are anxious and wondering whether management has been upfront with them. The Victorian government is also under pressure to explain why health authorities did not do more to act on the first positive result for a Cedar Meats worker back on April 2, and why it failed to directly contact the company when more infections were confirmed on April 24.
“Why didn’t the Health Department advise the boss of the company to [put] health measures in place? Obviously no action because it led to 45 cases,” asked the mother of one infected worker earlier in the week.
On April 9, 35 tonnes of Cedar Meats mutton were loaded onto the Chinese aircraft at Sydney Airport. For all the fanfare and media coverage surrounding the arrival of Chinese personal protective gear, there was little fuss about the Australian produce going back to China.
Cedar Meats did not go out of its way to highlight its involvement with the Chinese consortium in any major Australian media. But it did post a link to the shipment on the Cedar Meats page on popular Chinese social media platform WeChat.
The link included a statement from Cedar Meats general manager Tony Kairouz, who told the company’s Chinese audience of their shipment, describing it as a “humanitarian” act.
“We are concerned about the world climate and anything we can do to help we are doing,” he said. “We made a loss on the consignment as our contribution to the humanitarian efforts to provide them [China] with some meat.”
Cedar Meats is among a select group of Australian meat businesses with a licence to export to China. It is not known how much was paid for the mutton or how much the Australian government knew about the shipment. The federal Agriculture Department declined to comment on the matter.
But what is known is that Zhi was working with former PLA officer-turned-businessman Kuang Yuangping to source the mutton for Wuhan. Kuang, who made headlines in March for his involvement in the export of Australian medical and protective equipment to Wuhan, was linked to the Cedar Meats deal through his seven-week-old company, Australia Olon Food Services.
As for its dealings with Zhi, Cedar Meats on Friday acknowledged it had recently bought face masks from him. But that was the first and only time it had done so.
“Cedar Meats does not take OH&S advice from Mr Zhi,” the company said.
Cedar Meats also firmly ruled out any staff travel to China as a potential explanation for its COVID-19 outbreak. “No one from Cedar Meats has travelled to China since May 2019,” the company said.
Nevertheless, the Cedar Meats WeChat page makes clear the company enjoys strong relations with its Chinese customers.
The company’s WeChat page also features photos of Kairouz and other senior staff dining and smoking cigars with Chinese customers in Melbourne last October.
It even features a photograph of a novelty T-shirt about vegetarians, describing the word as the “ancient tribal name for the village idiot who can’t hunt, fish or light fires”.
In a high-risk place
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton this week described Cedar Meats, and all abattoirs, as places of high risk for COVID-19 transmission.
Meatworks, which are essential businesses for obvious reasons, have proven to be fertile ground for coronavirus infections in the United States and Canada. But so far in Australia, the Brooklyn abattoir remains the only food processing site affected.
Kairouz said this week he was hopeful Cedar Meats would be back to normal business when a two-week quarantine period ends later this month and extensive cleaning has been done.
The virus outbreak has put a spotlight on Cedar Meats and the broader meatworks industry in Australia. It has revealed a strong reliance on labour hire companies to provide workers to perform some of the most unglamorous jobs in Australia.
The involvement of a labour hire company in the Cedar Meats case has added an extra layer of confusion in tracing who knew what and when in relation to its COVID-19 cluster.
As The Age revealed on Friday, Victorian health authorities failed to tell Cedar Meats on April 24 and April 26 that it had workers who had returned positive tests.
Instead of talking to Cedar Meats management, health officials told Labour Solutions Australia that a worker it supplied to the abattoir had COVID-19. It was left to the labour hire firm to inform Cedar Meats about the positive tests and the company has since admitted the message was confused.
Cedar Meats was not directly contacted by health officials until April 27, when more positive results were returned. Further confirmed cases were reported on April 29 and workers were finally told that they had been unknowingly working in a coronavirus hotspot for a week on May 1.
“It would spread so easy at that place,” a former Cedar Meats employee told The Age. “You work in a line. There’s maybe a metre between you and the next person. You all eat together in a small room with maybe three microwaves. You all use the same toilets.”
Premier Daniel Andrews has defended the performance of the Health Department in handling the outbreak, but the opposition has called for an inquiry, declaring it “Victoria’s Ruby Princess moment”.
Whatever the case, the Cedar Meats experience will shape future contact-tracing efforts and communication strategies.
As for the Cedar Meats workers wondering if they will develop symptoms or have passed the virus on to their partners and children, they are far from impressed with the performance of management and the government.
“It isn’t good enough. No one is buying the story we’ve been told,” said one worker forced to remain in quarantine while the rest of the state looks forward to enjoying relaxed rules next week.
Richard Baker is a multi-award winning investigative reporter for The Age.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.