Meat Processing Plants Vulnerable to Covid outbreaks

Meat Processing Plants Vulnerable to Covid outbreaks

The news that three processing plants in the Republic of Ireland were at the centre of recent Covid outbreaks has raised concerns that Northern Ireland meat and poultry processing plants could also be affected.

O’Brien Fine Foods, Kildare Chilling, Irish Dog Foods, and Carroll Cuisine  have temporarily suspended operations. Over three hundred cases of Covid have been identified at meat plants in counties Offaly, Kildare and Laois.

Precedent in Northern Ireland

There has been a precedent in Northern Ireland. Other clusters of infections were reported at other poultry and meatpacking sites. Unions called for meat and poultry firms in Northern Ireland to ensure that social distancing and other safety measures were in place for staff.

A further outbreak was reported in recent weeks at Moy Park in Ballymena. Fewer than five workers were confirmed as testing positive for Covid, confirmed by Health Minister Robin Swann.

In a statement, Moy Park said it is working closely with the Public Health Agency  and other government bodies.

“As coronavirus has spread across the communities in which we live, we are doing all that we can to help keep the virus out of our facilities and help prevent its spread,” it added.

“We continue to strictly follow all safeguarding procedures across our sites, such as enhanced cleaning and hygiene regimes, thermal temperature scanning, perspex screens, additional PPE (personal protective equipment) and social distancing measures.”

Workers in meat plants at ‘increased risk’

Research by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has found that workers in meat and poultry processing plants are at increased risk. Its report stated that COVID-19 cases among US workers in 115 meat and poultry processing facilities were reported by 19 states. Among approximately 130,000 workers at these facilities, 4,913 cases and 20 deaths occurred. Factors potentially affecting risk for infection include difficulties with workplace physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) also published guidance on adapting food manufacturing operations during COVID-19. It stated that the “current situation” should not change the requirements for the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the food industry, “for the protection of workers, and to prevent the contamination of food during food production”.

Key workers in the Food Industry

A government report in to Key Workers in the Food Industry during Covid reported Nick Allen, Chief Executive of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) as saying that “one of the challenges in the early days was the lack of clarity of the advice from Public Health England”.

“There was one week where every day we were assured that, by the end of the day, we would have the information that we needed to discuss with our members and that they needed to discuss with the people working in the plants. We waited all week for it. Eventually, we were told it had come through on the Monday, and then it was held up another two or three days because it had to go through the devolved Governments. In the meantime, as an association, we formed our own best guidance for practice.

“It started in Northern Ireland, where they created a Northern Ireland protocol, and then we introduced it to all our plants.”