Outbreaks of Covid-19 at slaughterhouses are occurring in a number of countries around the world, in a development that may have long-term implications for food supply systems, say experts.
The US has been hardest hit, with outbreaks at more than 180 meat and processed food plants. But other countries with highly consolidated meat supply chains – Ireland, Spain, Australia, Germany, Brazil, Canada and the UK – are also struggling.
The reasons for the outbreaks are said to be a combination of crowded working conditions, workforces that are often made up predominantly of migrant workers living in communal housing, and the fact that plants have remained open during the crisis.
The problem is particularly acute where large companies dominate the industry, as has increasingly been the case. Many small slaughterhouses have been shut down over recent years in favour of fewer but larger plants that may have thousands of workers, leading to what one observer called “the most narrow bottleneck in US agribusiness”.
In the US there have been almost 5,000 cases and at least 20 deaths among meat plant workers as of the end of April. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting says there have now been more than 10,000 cases linked to meat plants. Difficulties with physical distancing and hygiene, and crowded living and transportation conditions, are listed as potential risk factors by US health officials.
More than 20 meat plants have been closed in recent weeks, and one outbreak alone – at the Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota – saw more than 850 confirmed cases. Workers may have continued to work while feeling ill due to economic insecurity, health officials said. Tyson poultry workers were being offered a $500 bonus to continue working.
In Germany there have been more than 300 confirmed cases at the Müller Fleisch plant in Birkenfeld. The owners called it the “most serious crisis” in the plant’s history. The communal living spaces for the largely migrant workforce have been partially blamed.
In Canada, 949 cases have been confirmed at an Alberta meat packing house owned by Cargill, in the largest outbreak linked to a single facility in the country.
In Australia, approximately 70 cases have so far been confirmed at Cedar Meats in Melbourne, which has been shut down for deep cleaning.
Prosecutors in Brazil are currently trying to close down plants – including some run by JBS and BRF – where cases have been detected. Cases have been confirmed at nine plants, according to a government report seen by Reuters, which stated that more than 16,000 people may have been exposed.
In Spain, there has been a row at Litera Meat in Binéfar, Aragon, about the number of workers who have the virus. Initial serological tests were positive for about 200 workers. The management have carried out subsequent tests on 284 workers to see if they are currently carrying the virus and had 11 positive results.
Plants in Ireland have also been hit hard. Official figures show outbreaks at ten plants with more than 560 workers affected. Outbreaks were reported at Liffey Meats in Cavan and Kepak plants in Roscommon and Longford. More than a third of the workforce – 120 workers in all – at the Rosderra pigmeat plant in Co Tipperary reportedly tested positive for the virus, while last Friday Dawn Meats closed its plant in Westmeath following positive cases.
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