Covid-19 outbreaks at Irish meat plants raise fears over worker safety

An outbreak of Covid-19 among workers in a meat factory in Tipperary has raised fears that the virus is spreading through abattoirs and meat-processing plants in Ireland.

Sinn Fein’s spokesperson on agriculture, Brian Stanley, told the Irish parliament last night that 120 workers at the Rosderra Meats plant in Roscrea had tested positive for the virus. He also said that of 350 workers at the plant, up to 140 were off sick last week. Rosderra is the largest pork-processing company in Ireland.

Michael Creed, Ireland’s agriculture minister, told MPs that he was aware of six meat-processing plants with two or more confirmed cases of Covid-19 among workers, although he did not name them.

A spokesperson for Rosderra Meats confirmed to the Guardian that a number of employees had tested positive for coronavirus. They said that the company had implemented stringent measures to ensure the safety of employees, and added that production will be scaled down until all staff return to work.

The news came as one of Ireland’s biggest beef companies announced a Covid-related shutdown. Dawn Meats said on Friday that it had temporarily closed its plant in Westmeath after four workers tested positive for coronavirus. Dawn Meats produces more than 400 million burgers a year for McDonald’s outlets in the UK and Europe. In a statement, the company said that the plant had been closed “out of an abundance of caution”. It has yet to decide if it will reopen next week.

Workers at other meat plants, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, said they were frightened of contracting the virus, and expressed deep concern that social distancing is not being enforced on some factory floors. One said that “people are on top of each other, it’s like a cattle mart”. A complaint made to a line manager was ignored, they say.

The closure has raised deep concerns that Ireland’s export-driven agri-food sector will be severely hit by the pandemic. Agri-food is the most important domestic industry in the country, employing more than 170,000 people. Produce is exported to more than 180 countries and the sector is worth EUR14bn (GBP12.3bn) to the economy.

The US, another country where the meat industry is a vital economic component with a powerful lobby, has been hit so hard by coronavirus-related closures that President Donald Trump this week signed an executive order to keep meat plants open. There are fears that prices and supply may be seriously disrupted.

In Northern Ireland, union representatives are pushing owners to undertake full health and safety risk assessments at meat plants, following concerns that factories are not putting workers’ safety first. “Companies are not enforcing social distancing and definitely not providing enough PPE,” said Brian Hewitt of Unite, who said he was aware of positive cases of the virus in workers at meat plants in Armagh and Tyrone. “Workers are afraid of getting infected,” he said.

In March, workers at the poultry processor Moy Park in Portadown walked out over fears that the company was putting employees at risk of infection. Sean McKevitt of Unite, who represents the workers, said on Friday that following negotiations with the company there was an “improved picture” for staff at Moy Park’s Dungannon and Portadown plants. Social distancing was in place, and workers had secured an additional GBP30 a week payment.

There are more than 20,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland, according to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, and 1,232 people diagnosed with the virus have died. The lockdown restrictions that were put in place to manage the spread of the virus are expected to remain for the coming weeks.


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