When the supermarket fridges that would normally be full of meat were empty, the cool room at Hastie's Meats in Wollongong had carcasses hanging as usual.
"We had an influx of supermarket customers that hadn't been able to get [their] stuff to come to us," said owner John Hastie.
While the business had to put limits on some items to ensure there was enough stock, the issue was less a lack of supplies but a spike in demand.
"We can cater for what we normally would sell but if you've got an influx of a couple 100 more customers coming through the door that is hard," said Mr Hastie.
Hastie's Meats has been in operation for 44 years and Mr Hastie has been a part of that for the past 30 but he's "never seen anything like this".
After an Omicron outbreak hit poultry supplier Inghams, fast food outlets and supermarkets were unable to stock a number of chicken products. While meat is a dynamic market used to fluctuations, to have a major source of chicken absent was unusual, said Tom Hutton of Illawarra Smallgoods.
"Chicken is not normally something that's heavily impacted because it's a high volume product, they produce it very quickly."
As cases rapidly climbed into the tens of thousands, there was hardly an industry that was unaffected by COVID-19 isolation requirements, but for the meat industry the timing of the outbreak meant that the shortage hit the headlines.
Abattoirs that run throughout the year normally shut over Christmas for a month of maintenance. Add to this higher demand and the supply chain began to fall apart.
But not all retailers are affected equally. Unlike large retailers reliant on distribution centres, the small number of staff employed by a local butcher means that businesses are more flexible.
"We've got 15 people, and can manage it a little bit better. We've been fortunate enough to remain open despite having the odd case come through the front door," said Mr Hastie. "But the bigger you are, the harder you fall. And that's nobody's fault."
Another factor at play has been that after years of drought, two good years of rain have left fields in prime conditions for grazing, enabling farmers to get a better price for livestock.
For butchers, this means that the cost of prime cuts - scotch fillet, for example - are so high that for it to be economical for them, the price would be unreasonable for customers.
"We owned some [scotch fillets], we couldn't sell them. So we put them on for below cost, sold them, and we haven't bought any since," said Mr Hutton.
With workforce shortages at abattoirs beginning to stabilise, for meat prices to return to normal, conditions will need to deteriorate for farmers or farms reach a critical mass where livestock needs to be sold off.
"And all of a sudden the focus won't be on making these cattle as fat and big as possible. The focus will be on getting numbers down," said Mr Hutton.
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