Working conditions in meat processing plants make them hotbed for COVID-19

MEP Peter Liese stressed that the conditions which propagate the spread of the virus are not confined to Germany, but are standard practice across meat plants in the EU. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

The EU Commission has been urged to take swift measures to protect workers in the meat processing sector following a major coronavirus outbreak in one of the largest facilities in Europe.

After a string of outbreaks in meat plants across the EU over the past few months, the Tönnies meat plant, located in North Rhine-Westphalia, saw over 1,500 cases of the virus this week, with over two-thirds of workers testing positive for coronavirus.

In comparison, the average rate of infection in the local area is only 0.05%, which Peter Liese, health policy spokesman of the EPP-Christian Democrats and a qualified doctor, says highlights the faults of the meat plant.

Liese told EURACTIV that there are several conditions in slaughterhouses that make these facilities an ideal breeding ground for the virus, notably the cold, dry temperatures combined with poor ventilation and air circulation.

He stressed that these conditions are not confined to Germany, but are standard practice across the EU.

As such, Liese called for ventilation systems of slaughterhouses to be checked and retrofitted as soon as possible and stressed that compulsory and systematic testing of all employees in slaughterhouses throughout the EU is urgently required, in addition to stringent social distancing rules.

“The many outbreaks in slaughterhouses across Europe are also a clear warning of the threat of a second wave in autumn and winter,” he said, highlighting that the conditions in slaughterhouses mirror winter weather conditions.

Coronavirus outbreak exposing vulnerabilities in the EU meat sector

After multiple outbreaks of coronavirus brought 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.

Dennis Radtke, social policy spokesperson of the EPP group, also drew attention to the need for “entrepreneurial responsibility,” demanding that meat plant owners be held accountable, saying that that the employment status of workers presents a major problem for this.

“The fact that many employees are not employed in the actual company but work for subcontractors and are in part pseudo-self-employed obviously leads to huge problems. We therefore need entrepreneurial responsibility on the part of the client even for so-called subcontractors.”

“This can only be done by means of EU-wide subcontractor liability for this sector. Especially in the case of on-site work contracts, the contracting companies must be held liable for the employment relationships of subcontractors’ employees,” Radtke said.

In the wake of the outbreak, a request for employee data from the company was turned down by management, citing EU data protection regulation.

However, this does not stand up to scrutiny.

“Our experts immediately made it clear that the data protection regulation naturally provides for exceptions for protection against infection. This must be clarified quickly throughout Europe,” Liese and Radtke stressed, calling this a “scandal”.

Authorities urged to support struggling meat sector post-coronavirus

More than 65 organisations and individuals across producer, veterinary, research, and academic sectors have co-signed a letter calling for more support in the global meat sector in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and urging authorities to refute claims that the crisis stemmed from the livestock sector.

Their call for action follows the publication of a new report this week from the European federation of trade unions for food, agriculture and tourism (EFFAT), which found that the “appalling working, employment and housing conditions affecting thousands of meat workers in many countries across Europe” are the reasons why meat processing plants have become vectors for the spread of COVID-19″.

The study, which outlines the effects of coronavirus on the meat sector in various countries across Europe, calls for concrete and urgent actions, including binding measures, to be adopted both at national as well as EU level.

EFFAT General Secretary Kristjan Bragason said that “meat – and all agri-food – workers have shown astounding dedication to their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic – too often risking their health due to lack of effective health protection measures in order to provide food for our table”.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed to a wider audience issues that EFFAT and its affiliates have been calling out to the EU Institutions and national governments over many years,” adding that he hopes policymakers “agree that there is no time to waste.”

Asked about the situation in meat plants across EU, Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of farmers’ association COPA-COGECA, told EURACTIV that EU meat plants have felt the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak less than the US, and that the impact has been “manageable” in the EU.

He added that difficulties in logistics have been offset by the quick reactions of the industry, which he says has rapidly responded to the new challenges despite being technically demanding.

COVID-19 could be 'straw that breaks meat industry's back' says new report

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s largest meat, fish and dairy companies have been graded as a ‘high’ pandemic risk and criticised for their inability to prevent the emergence of new zoonotic diseases in a new report released on Wednesday (3 June).

Edited by Samuel Stolton

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