Covid-19 Outbreaks At Meat Plants – What Lessons Can Be Learned?

Recent Covid-19 outbreaks at various meat processing plants worldwide are raising concerns about health and safety, working conditions, the possibility of a second wave of infections, and what it may mean for the UK hospitality industry as it is about to reopen its doors to the public.

The Extent of The Covid-19 Outbreaks

Nearly 30,000 workers have tested positive for coronavirus at meat processing plants and abattoirs across the US, Europe and Brazil. There has been a similar outbreak at a fish processing factory in Ghana.

Recent findings published by Wellcome Open Research have shown that food processing factories have been responsible for some of the biggest localised Covid-19 outbreaks of the coronavirus worldwide.

An outbreak in an abattoir in northern Germany caused a spike in their local R number, which over one weekend jumped from 1.06 to 2.88. This means each person with the virus is infecting almost 3 other people. To overcome the virus, the number has to stay below 1. The spike was due to over 650 cases at the abattoir that has put about 7000 people into quarantine and prompted the closure of local schools. Officials have pointed out that the jump in R number does not suggest a second wave. Infection rates in Germany are fairly low and even a slight jump in the numbers of those with Covid-19 will lead to a rapid rise in the R number.

There have been four separate cases of Covid-19 outbreaks in England and Wales. At the Asda owned Kober meat processing plant in Cleckheaton, over 150 workers have tested positive. The 2 Sisters chicken processing plant at Llangefni on Anglesey, North Wales has been closed and all workers are self-isolating. The plant processes chickens for several stores and fast-food chains across Britain. In Wrexham, 38 staff out of 1,500 at the Rowan Foods factory tested positive and are self-isolating. Most recently, a pork processing site in Tipton has also reported several coronavirus cases.

Possible Causes

Because every country has meatpacking or meat processing plants, it is important to ask why these types of facilities seem to be corona hotspots and how to improve health and safety. The first reported outbreaks in meat processing plants occurred in the US. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) performed a study on processing plants and observed working practices to discover what might be encouraging the virus to spread. They identified several possible factors.

  1. They noted that the work is fast-paced because it is part of a production line. The cramped conditions along processing lines and the physical layout make social distancing difficult. The fast pace also means workers find it difficult to use face coverings all the time and observed that people often wore face masks over their mouths but not covering their nose. The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) has issued guidance, including cleaning factories more often than usual, and staggering start times and break times. It also suggests providing additional personal protective equipment (PPE) such as visors, if available. Staff in meat processing facilities usually wear PPE, but this does not always include masks.
  2. Another possible factor is that these refrigerated workplaces are very noisy so people are having to raise their voices or shout. People get infected with coronavirus from droplets. Shouting means any viral particles present are more likely to travel further, which will increase the spread of infected droplets.
  3. Workers in the factories were often immigrants. It was observed in one US factory that 40 different languages were spoken. This would make getting public health messages across more challenging. It has been noted that in the German abattoir that recorded an outbreak there were a lot of Eastern Europeans, particularly Romanians and Albanians. Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union says workers in the meat processing sector rarely speak English as a first language.
  4. The low incomes of the US workers meant they were more likely to share transport to and from work. They were also more likely to go into work even if they felt unwell. This may be relevant to the cases in the UK. Plants often use migrant workers who may not be entitled to full sick pay, so could lose money if they self-isolate after getting sick.
  5. The factories are kept at low temperature to keep the meat fresh. Virus-containing droplets from infected individuals may be more likely to spread, settle on surfaces and stay viable in a cold environment where there is very little ultraviolet light. However, it has not been established that the virus will thrive in the cold.

Some note that Covid-19 outbreaks have not occurred in dairy processing factories, which also have cool sections and deal with the frozen food sector, so the risk factors may be something particular to meat processing. They do not relate the outbreaks to the meat that is being processed, therefore the working conditions may be the most important factor.

There is no evidence that the meat products themselves are a source of Covid-19 infection at the plants. In the UK the Food Standards Agency has looked at whether meat could transmit the virus and have said the risk is thought to be very low with the virus likely to have died by the time meat reaches consumers. Studies show similar coronaviruses die when cooked at 74C (165F) or higher, so cooking meat thoroughly would destroy the virus even if it could survive on meat.

Some infectious disease experts say the packaging of meat is a bigger threat of spreading Covid-19, with the virus known to survive on surfaces for days.

Implications For The Hospitality Industry

One possible explanation for why outbreaks have not occurred in other manufacturing settings with similar working environments is simply that fewer have been in operation because of lockdown, whereas food production has continued. So does this have implications as governments ease lockdowns?

Pubs and restaurants in England have been told they can start reopening for more than takeaway service from July 4th. Are there any parallels between hospitality and meat processing factories that might suggest we can expect similar Covid-19 outbreaks? People working in close proximity could be a problem. The commercial kitchen is often an environment where people work close to each other, which will be a challenge to social distancing. Workers also may be on contracts that do not offer sick pay and therefore would be less willing to take time off if they are feeling unwell. A hot kitchen could also be an environment where workers will find it challenging to keep a mask on all day.

With these similarities in working conditions, monitoring of coronavirus cases in the hospitality industry will be vital as the country tries to return to normal.

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