Coronavirus outbreak exposing vulnerabilities in the EU meat sector

After an outbreak in a meat plant in Germany, the industry has since come under intense criticism and been accused of violating German worker safety laws [SHUTTERSTOCK]

After multiple outbreaks of coronavirus brought some meat-processing plants to a standstill across the US, a similar trend has started to be seen across the EU, with potentially damaging consequences for the sector.

In recent weeks, the meat sector in the US has suffered from a number of COVID-19 outbreaks, leading to disruption in the food chain and ultimately the euthanisation of thousands of animals that have been unable to be processed.

Now, we are starting to see similar outbreaks across various member states across the EU.

Last Monday (11 March), news broke of a coronavirus outbreak in a meat plant in the northwest of Germany, with over 200 infections now linked to the location.

The industry has since come under intense criticism and accused of violating German worker safety laws, causing Green MPs to request a debate in the Bundestag on the topic, which will be held on Thursday.

Similarly, there are now reports that the Republic of Ireland is suffering from the same problem.

The republic is Europe’s largest beef exporter, with 90% of its beef going to the UK, France, Italy and Germany.

But government figures reveal that more than 600 coronavirus infections have been reported at meat processing plants across Ireland with the first worker employed at one of the plants to have died of COVID-19 named this week.

German slaughterhouses become a source of COVID-19 infections

Many employees in slaughterhouses are ill with COVID-19 because they work and live closely together. The abuses in the industry have been known for years, but little has changed. EURACTIV Germany reports.

A spokesperson for farmers association COPA-COGECA told EURACTIV that the current situation “might indeed have some influence on the farmers who supply them as they will now have to deal with the animals that cannot be sent off to the meat processing,” but added that this is unlikely.

“We believe that the sector will naturally alleviate the situation as much as possible, once again in line with legal requirements respecting human health, hygiene, sanitary, animal health, and welfare standards.”

The spokesperson added that based on the current situation, they “don’t see that there would be the need to euthanise the animals,” but added that if this unlikely situation occurs, farmers would “once again follow legislation and in particular animal health and welfare standards.”

However, the association cautioned that this could potentially cause a “major loss of animal life and high-quality foodstuffs, raw materials as well as an economic loss and food waste.”

“It is not in anyone’s interest and all actors should do their best to avoid it. But if indeed it comes to this, we would have to do in orderly manner, in line with legislation and safety recommendations,” they said, adding that they are carefully monitoring the situation.

Paolo Patruno, deputy secretary-general of CLITRAVI, the liaison centre for the meat processing industry in the EU, told EURACTIV that the “overwhelming majority of EU meat processing plants are securing foods to the European citizens in the full respect of animal health and welfare and by implementing high standards to protect human health.”

He added that this included the implementation of social distancing measures.

He said that regarding individual cases where outbreaks were detected, it is “up to the single companies to implement standards to operate in the full respect of human health.”

Patruno cautioned that if Europe experienced a similar situation to the US and faced bottlenecks in production as a consequence, it could cause a “huge loss of animals and high-quality raw material, as well as an economic loss and food waste.”

However, Enrico Somaglia, deputy secretary-general of the European federation of trade unions for food, agriculture and tourism (EFFAT), told EURACTIV that the outbreak has “exacerbated issues that are already well known in the sector,” especially regarding worker safety.

EU Commission urged to protect agri-food workers

Mounting concerns for the health of workers in the agri-food sector have prompted stakeholders to call for stronger measures for their protection.

“The working conditions of meat workers are incredibly tough, with workers on the assembly lines in close proximity to each other. We have already seen cases of social distancing not being able to be respected.”

“These workers often live in difficult, overcrowded conditions which facilitate the spread of the virus,” he added.

He warned that this is a serious health hazard, not only for the protection of workers but also for the local community.

Olga Kikou, head of compassion in world farming (CiWF) EU, added that “meat-processing plants have indeed earned a name recently for being a breeding ground for COVID-19.”

“We should also not forget that these places are notorious for exploiting workers, often immigrants or on the brink of poverty, who are exposed to serious injuries,” she added.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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