Coronavirus outbreaks and closures hit Europe’s meat factories

UK authorities are studying whether meat processing plants are especially vulnerable to Covid-19 infections

German soldiers helped set up a testing centre at the Tönnies headquarters in Gütersloh to deal with a huge Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images.

A spate of Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing facilities across Europe has led to over 4,000 workers reportedly becoming infected, an analysis by Unearthed has found.

At least 37 outbreaks have been reported in abbatoirs and meatpacking plants across Europe since March according to English-language news reports collated by Unearthed, leading to at least nine factory closures. 

UK authorities including Defra, Public Health England and the Food Standards Agency are now looking at evidence from around the world to establish whether meat processing plants are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, Unearthed understands.  

The conditions the workers have to work and live in are often very bad here in Germany. This makes it very easy for the virus to spread

On Tuesday, the largest outbreak yet reported in a European meat processing facility led to lockdown being reimposed on a whole town in the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia. More than 1,500 workers have tested positive for Covid-19 at a factory in the region run by Tönnies Group, Germany’s largest meat supplier, and thousands of others remain in quarantine.

The past 10 days have also seen a series of outbreaks in English and Welsh facilities. On Tuesday the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and his most senior scientists discussed the subject at the daily coronavirus press briefing. “We are aware of this particular issue with meat-processing factories,” Johnson said. 

On June 15, a factory that supplies meat to Asda in Kirklees, West Yorkshire, closed voluntarily after staff became infected with Covid-19; a spokesperson told Unearthed that initial reports that 150 workers had tested positive were too high but could not confirm the number of cases.

On June 18, a chicken factory in Anglesey run by 2 Sisters, one of the UK’s largest food producers, closed for a fortnight due to Covid-19 cases among workers; by Tuesday (June 23) 200 workers had tested positive.

A further cluster of cases was reported on Monday at a pork factory run by Tulip Foods in Tipton, in the Midlands. Three workers are currently in self-isolation and 10 have tested positive in the past three weeks, a spokesperson confirmed. 

And on Tuesday it emerged that eight staff have tested positive since the start of June at a lamb and beef factory run by Kepak in Merthyr Tydfil – and 34 in total have had confirmed cases since April. 

In Ireland, one of Europe’s biggest beef producers, authorities have reported 1,114 confirmed Covid-19 cases across at least 20 clusters in meat processing facilities. “An outbreak is defined as two or more cases of Covid-19 that are linked in terms of time, place, and contact,” a spokeswoman for the Health Service Executive told Unearthed.

Further clusters have been reported in meat plants in the Netherlands, France and Spain.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said: “Across the country, PHE’s health protection teams are working with local authorities to advise on a number of Covid-19 outbreaks in factories. Some, but not all, of the factories affected manufacture, package or handle meat.”

A spokesman said the agency is aware of fewer than 10 outbreaks in England since the first was reported in mid-May.

A global problem

Most outbreaks in Europe so far have been small in comparison to those in the US, where at least 32,000 workers in meat processing facilities have tested positive for Covid-19, and 109 are known to have died, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, which has been tracking cases. Millions of animals have been culled and discarded after plant closures hit the industry’s capacity to process them.

Major outbreaks have also been reported in Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of beef. More than a quarter of Covid-19 cases in one state, Rio Grande do Sul, were among workers in meat processing plants, with 2,399 employees infected, Reuters reported.

The frequency and scale of outbreaks in meat facilities have raised questions about whether they are particularly vulnerable workplaces for infections. 

The food industry is one of the only industries that’s never stopped

“There are several features, perhaps, about meat-processing factories,” the UK government’s chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance told the press briefing on Tuesday. “They’re cold and we know the virus prefers it in the cold, often difficult in keeping people physically separated so there’s that whole problem of proximity.”

He added: “They’re often loud so people are speaking quite loudly and there are places people go and huddle to go and have their coffees, and so on, so they infect each other so the environment itself is rather a difficult one.” But the risk of catching Covid-19 from meat is “very low”, he said.

Unions have pointed to poor pay, conditions and housing for meat plant staff as a contributing factor – driven by demand for low-cost meat products. 

“Far too many staff are living hand to mouth on low wages and poor employment contracts. Many employers are refusing to provide any financial support for those presenting with symptoms, so it is inevitable that some staff will simply hope they don’t have it and go into work,” Bev Clarkson of the Unite union said in a press release.

In Germany, where the three biggest outbreaks identified by Unearthed occurred, the cases have prompted scrutiny of the housing and work conditions of meat processing staff. 

Jonas Bohl of the German foodworkers’ union NGG explained: “The German factories are bigger and there are more people working in these factories than is usual in other countries. Also, the conditions the workers have to work and live in are often very bad here in Germany. This makes it very easy for the virus to spread.” 

He added: “The big number of coronavirus infections shows clearly that the companies have not done enough to protect workers.”

David Lindars, technical operations director at the British Meat Processors Association, said: “We have never seen any evidence that a meat factory is specifically at risk from Covid-19,” he told Unearthed. Conditions for workers in the UK industry are very different from those in Germany, he added: the British industry does not use temporary or agency workers in the same way as in Germany.

“The food industry is one of the only industries that’s never stopped [during the pandemic],” he continued. “If you opened up LandRover Jaguar in Solihull tomorrow and 6,000 people went back to work, I’m sure you would see the same.” He added that the apparent surge in outbreaks coincided with Public Health England launching its test and trace operations. 

However the government’s chief medical advisor, Chris Witty, told Tuesday’s coronavirus briefing: “Meat-packing factories, abattoirs and food-processing and packing areas have led to several outbreaks around the world and, therefore, are an area where we’ll have to take the mitigation efforts particularly seriously.”

Unearthed contacted all the UK companies which had seen outbreaks in the past 10 days for comment. 

A spokesperson for Asda said its Kirklees factory was reopening on Monday, but all staff who were still self-isolating would receive full pay. “The site will re-open on a reduced capacity and only colleagues that have been tested and declared fit to return will be on site…

“Whilst Kirklees Council were satisfied with our existing safety procedures, we have introduced some additional measures as a precaution. These include separation of colleagues on different shifts and checking the temperature of colleagues before they enter the site.”  

2 Sisters shared a statement in which it highlighted that it had not had a single confirmed case among its 560 workers until May 28, adding: “We will not tolerate any unnecessary risks – however small – for our existing loyal workforce at the facility… Our sole focus now is to ensure we support all our colleagues through this time and look forward to operating safely and securely in 14 days’ time.”

In a statement, Tulip Foods praised staff who had “bravely responded to this global pandemic in the most challenging of circumstances”. The company is arranging testing  of a sample of “one particular area of production” before deciding on further action, the statement added.

Kepak said in a statement that all its sites are “safely operational”, adding: “The health and safety of our staff, customers and suppliers is our key priority. As such, we are actively engaging with our Employee Forums, and with the relevant Public Health Agencies to ensure that best practice Covid-19 control measures and procedures are implemented and adhered to across all our sites.”

This article was updated on 24 June to include new data on outbreaks in the Republic of Ireland.