SunPork is leading innovation in pork production, investing $60 million in a world-class abattoir and employing an autistic workforce through its acclaimed Autism and Agriculture Program.

How three became one

SunPork began with three independent Australian family pork farms owned by the Cameron, Hall and McLean families. The three had in common a nutrition and production consultant who brought the three companies together for collective training and benchmarking.

When Australia’s largest genetics company, the Pig Improvement Company (or PIC Australia), became available for sale, the families decided to purchase the business to gain control over their own genetics and herd development, which they did in 1996. The business has since expanded across the entire value chain and, after a fire in 2016 that burned down the abattoir, they’re currently investing $60 million in a brand-new facility set to become a major platform for growth.

Innovative hiring process

SunPork has also innovated in its hiring practices. The Autism and Agriculture Program, launched by current CEO Robert van Barneveld, is a program aimed at improving production quality while providing employment opportunities for people with autism and their families.

These innovations have boosted growth exponentially for SunPork, with the business today selling more than 42 million kilograms of pork per annum including fresh cuts, and value-add products such as pork schnitzels, pre-cooked ribs and bellies, moisture-infused cuts and roasts, sausages, Kassler chops and hams.

From misdiagnosis to autism revolution

When van Barneveld’s youngest daughter was misdiagnosed with autism (she was re-diagnosed later at the age of 15 as having Rett syndrome, which in its early stages is often confused with autism), he became involved with Autism Queensland and was Chair of the Board for 10 years. With others, he then established the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Living with Autism, which he also now Chairs, raising $100 million of funding to invest in the first whole-of-life approach to autism and the first coordinated approach of its kind in Australia.

Autism and Agriculture Program

Van Barneveld’s involvement with the CRC exposed him to the work of Danish company Specialisterne, which advocated that employing people on the spectrum contributed to diversity of thought in your business and improved overall business HR processes. This led to him developing the ground-breaking Autism and Agriculture Program, designed to introduce autistic employees into the business. Within SunPork, autistic employees are fully integrated, fully paid employees, with no government support or silos.

“Autism and Agriculture began as a pilot program,” van Barneveld says. “It was a collaboration between the Autism CRC, the Pork CRC and a company called Specialisterne, from Denmark, which recognised that autistic individuals have a range of traits that can be very useful, that can be strengths. If you can provide an environment where those strengths can be used effectively, then you have a very effective workforce at your disposal.”

The program has featured twice on Channel Ten’s The Project as well as on ABC’s Landline.

“We’ve received amazing reviews, not only in terms of raising the [equal opportunity] bar but allowing autistic people to share what they can do and giving them an opportunity to do that. It’s also given us an opportunity to improve our overall animal care and production standards.”

Van Barneveld says the program, in his view, has improved the entire workplace.

“That’s because you need to focus on your environment, on how you communicate, on how you train. You need to focus on how other employees are informed and interact. And when you do that, you just end up with a much, much better workplace.”

Innovation through chain control

Today, SunPork Group extends across the complete value chain, including:

  • PIC Australia for genetics
  • SunPork Farms for pig production
  • Swickers Kingaroy Bacon Factory for processing, boning and value-adding cooked products
  • Swickers Eagle Farm for value-adding fresh cuts
  • SunPork Fresh Foods for sales and marketing
  • SunPork Solutions for research, science and technology, veterinary, nutrition and training services.

“Having control of the whole value chain from genetics through to retail is in itself unique and innovative,” van Barneveld points out.

“There aren’t many companies in Australia that can do that. Often, you’ll just have the farming business and everything ends at the farm gate, and then the farm gate has to negotiate a sale price to a processor who then does something with that product. They are at opposite ends of the value chain, so in the natural scheme of things the processor wants to pay the least amount possible and the farm gate wants the most amount possible. So, trying to make sure that they’re a coordinated and equitable value chain is quite a challenge.”

Through acquiring the necessary capabilities and refining processes to streamline the end-to-end chain and gain efficiencies, SunPork Group has met that challenge.

A world-class abattoir

After the abattoir fire, the business set about planning a world-class facility to boost production. SunPork Group is investing $60 million to install a state-of-the-art processing facility at the Swickers Kingaroy Bacon Factory. The new facility is able to process 750 pigs an hour and will incorporate innovations including a back-loader for stunning, vertical scalding, and snap chilling all aimed at improving meat quality and enhancing product shelf life.

“As a business we had an obligation to ensure the abattoir could handle future growth,” van Barneveld says. “It also needed to produce pork to the highest standards of food safety and shelf life.”

Swickers is the only export-accredited abattoir in Queensland and processes 95 per cent of Queensland pigs (currently 21,000 a week).

Doubling genetic gain

SunPork has invested heavily in technology and genomic science, in association with its normal breeding programs, to significantly improve production quality and volume.

“With Australia’s high biosecurity laws, which we support, the government has closed borders to importation of any form of pig genetics,” van Barneveld explains. “So, we have to rely on what we have in Australia to provide all the genetic gain for ourselves and the industry.”

Pig Improvement Company

PIC Australia is the largest pig genetics company in Australia and is utilising advanced genomic technologies at significant cost to increase the rate of genetic gain. The gains now being achieved have more than made up for the investment.

“We’ve had to invest significantly to get those technologies in place,” van Barneveld says. “For some genetic traits, these technologies have allowed us to double the rate of gain in the past two years. That makes sure that in business and as an industry we remain internationally competitive – and is certainly innovative.”

Value-added products

SunPork’s fresh foods business today features 39 branded lines in major supermarkets in Australia and overseas, with products in the ready-to-cook range including pulled pork, pre-cooked pork ribs and pork bellies – and continued growth is expected across the range.

“People traditionally haven’t known what to do with pork in Australia,” van Barneveld says. “Our innovation in pre-cooked and fresh in retail responds to that, and not only allows people to buy pork in a form that’s easy to prepare, but it also shows consumers how versatile pork is as a food.

“Our slow-cooked ribs and slow-cooked pork belly are two of the most popular value-added products in some supermarkets of any meat demonstrating Australians are keen consumers of pork.”

Growth by exports

Exports are also a growth opportunity for SunPork. As a “comparatively tiny exporter” to Asia, van Barneveld believes there is significant room for growth.

“We’ve had a very strong offal export market into Asia for many years under the Koal brand,” he says, “and recently we’ve improved the quality and colour of our carcass products leaving our Kingaroy facility. We’ve expanded our carcass export to Singapore and now also sell specially packaged cuts of fresh meat into Hong Kong.”

Important information

The information contained in this article is intended to be of a general nature only. It has been prepared without taking into account any person’s objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on this information, NAB recommends that you consider whether it is appropriate for your circumstances. NAB recommends that you seek independent legal, financial, and taxation advice before acting on any information in this article.

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