‘As long as you don’t change this structure, you will always have these mass outbreaks in the meat industry’
Germany is facing its largest local Covid-19 outbreak after more than 650 slaughterhouse workers tested positive for the virus at a meat processing plant in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Toennies, the company that owns the Rheda-Wiedenbrück meat processing plant in Guetersloh, temporarily shut its operations since Wednesday afternoon and has ordered isolation and tests for every person working at the site.
Local authorities have asked nearly 7000 people to observe quarantine rules and suspended all schools and daycare centers in the region until the summer holidays on June 29
The move is aimed to contain the spread and limit the number of infectious cases.
While Germany has fared much better than its counterparts in containing the outbreak with only 8,856 casualties from the virus given its large population of nearly 84 million, the current outbreak has been deemed untenable by the agriculture minister, who has backed an official investigation into the source of the infection.
“Hundreds of infections in one plant. These conditions aren’t tenable,” Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner said in a statement.
According to Tönnies, the outbreak is a result of its workers traveling home to Romania and Bulgaria for a recent long weekend.
But experts slammed the theory questioning how such a large outbreak resulting in such a drastic spike in cases could have been caused by travel alone.
“The working conditions in slaughterhouses doesn’t seem to be very compatible with the currently required hygiene measures,” said Isabella Eckerle, the head of the center for emerging viral diseases at the University of Geneva.
“In my view the large number of (infected) employees indicates an undetected ‘super-spreading event’ in the company that has been going on for some time.”
Freddy Adjan, the deputy chairman of NGG, Germany’s food industry labor union, said the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in meat plant employees is a result of a “sick” system that “ruthlessly exploits” workers. He added that big meat companies use subcontractors to hire cheap labor without taking responsibility for the welfare of their workers.
‘Change the structure’
Peter Kossen, a catholic priest told DW: “Women and men are simply worn out by these living and working conditions. They are treated as if they had no human dignity, as if they were third-class citizens.
“As long as you don’t change this structure, you will always have these mass outbreaks in the meat industry.”
Similar coronavirus outbreaks in meat processing plants in Dissen in Lower Saxony and Coesfeld in North Rhine-Westphalia last month highlighted the same issues of poor working and living conditions of the industry’s predominantly foreign workers.
While Toennies spokesman Andre Vielstädte said the business had worked “intensively” to “keep the virus out,” Gereon Schulze Althoff, the director of quality management and veterinary services at the company, said that the company had been “fighting like lions since February … to keep the virus out of the operation.”
He added that workers and their welfare are the priority for the company.
According to market watchers, the outbreak in the Rheda-Wiedenbrueck slaughterhouse could result in meat supply shortages in Germany.
The dpa news agency reported local politician Sven-Georg Adenauer stating that a fifth of Germany’s meat products could be unavailable if the plant remained shut.
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