Workers outside the Westfleisch meat processing company in Hamm, Western Germany, on May 10 2020, as all staff have to be tested for the coronavirus after a spike in cases at their abattoirs. Picture: AFP/INA FASSBENDER
Workers outside the Westfleisch meat processing company in Hamm, Western Germany, on May 10 2020, as all staff have to be tested for the coronavirus after a spike in cases at their abattoirs. Picture: AFP/INA FASSBENDER

London/Frankfurt — More than 1,000 workers at European abattoirs have contracted Covid-19, highlighting the growing challenges the global meat industry faces from the pandemic.

In Ireland, 556 workers in 10 meat-processing facilities tested positive as of last week, the nation’s health department said. The Robert Koch Institute, which publishes daily Covid-19 reports in Germany, said there have been outbreaks at plants in three districts. At least two have been shuttered.

The up-tick in infections in some of Europe’s biggest pork and beef shippers comes after North American meat plants became coronavirus hot-spots. While the region isn’t facing the shortages and soaring prices that have shaken the US market, the closures can disrupt sales. The death this month of a worker from a poultry producer in Northern Ireland also underlined the risks to staff.

“The terrible impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues to greatly affect everyone’s daily lives throughout our company,” said a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland producer, Moy Park.

Like many European meat processors, the company has taken measures to safeguard workers as the pandemic unfolds, including distributing protective equipment, staggering breaks and enhancing cleaning. A nearby facility in Omagh run by Foyle Food Group has also confirmed some Covid-19 cases.

The Unite labour union in Northern Ireland has asked processors to temporarily close facilities with outbreaks.

“We cannot allow a crisis to develop in the sector such as has been witnessed in the US where more than 10,000 workers have contracted the virus, with scores dead,” Jackie Pollock, Unite’s regional secretary, said in a statement.

Less concentrated

In the US, the coronavirus spread at more than twice the national rate in counties with major meatpacking plants in the first week after President Donald Trump’s executive order directing that they be reopened. Pork processing remains about a quarter below capacity, and farms may be forced to cull millions of animals.

While a handful of companies dominate the American industry, meat processing in Europe is less concentrated, damping the impact of plant shutdowns. Processors have also cut back operations during the pandemic because of sluggish demand, with restaurants closed and festivals and soccer matches scuttled, said Tim Koch, a livestock analyst at AMI in Bonn, Germany.

“For now, we don’t have such great problems” as those facing American farmers, said Koch. “It’s not good, far from good, but there are options to handle it.”

The Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants are driven by working conditions and by the crowded shelters that accommodate seasonal staff, according to Germany’s federal labour ministry. Authorities in the leading livestock states of Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and North-Rhine Westphalia have ordered virus testing of meat-plant workers.

Plant shuttered

On May 8, state officials ordered a 10-day closure of Westfleisch’s Coesfeld plant because of infections. A Münster court, which rejected an emergency request by the company to keep the pig abattoir open, cited problems with keeping the minimum 1.5m distance between workers and the incorrect use of masks.

Westfleisch said it continually adapts safety measures for its employees, including masks and taking workers’ temperatures at the factory gate. The authorities are investigating the outbreak, with 254 people currently infected in Coesfeld, it said.

Vion also closed a slaughterhouse in Bad Bramstedt in Germany this month, after about a third of workers were found to be infected.

“As things stand today, the supply of the population is secured,” German meat association VDF said by e-mail. “If further slaughterhouses are temporarily closed, the development will depend on which companies are affected.”

Bloomberg