More meat factory outbreaks of COVID-19 globally raise concerns

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Outbreaks of coronavirus have been reported at meat factories around the world, including at multiple sites in the UK. The Independent reports that in October, 75 workers tested positive at a turkey plant in Norfolk, while 72 cases were confirmed at a food processing facility in Suffolk. Weeks before, more than 170 infections were recorded at a meat plant in Cornwall. Back in June, a chicken plant in Wales and a meat factory in Yorkshire both stopped production after becoming the centre of outbreaks.

Elsewhere in Europe over summer, lockdown measures were tightened in a German county that had seen a large increase in COVID-19 cases linked to a slaughterhouse, where more than 1,500 workers contracted coronavirus. And meat factories in the US have also shut over COVID-19 and seen hundreds of workers fall ill with the virus. Staff working in close proximity to each other, poor employment contracts and cold temperatures are some of the theories behind the outbreaks, but industry representatives in the UK insist the reason for them is a “mystery”.

“There is no proof in science that a meat factory is any different to a chilled food factory doing other work,” David Lindars from the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), is quoted in The Independent as saying. “Nothing has been said about our working environment in particular that causes any of these outbreaks that we know of from a science point of view. It is a mystery as to why. Lindars, the trade body’s technical operations director, added: “You must not forget we never stopped as an industry. The car industry stopped and lots of other industries stopped.

The report says experts believe the unique conditions at meat factories could be partly behind the outbreaks. Professor Rowland Kao, a professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, said that “low temperatures have also been shown to result in higher rates of transmission of influenza in experimental studies, and to improve the survival of other coronaviruses such as MERS-CoV. While this is not proven for COVID-19, similar mechanisms may apply.”

And Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, agreed that the environment inside factories and slaughterhouses would be perfect for coronavirus to linger and spread.

“The virus survives on cold surfaces and, in the absence of ventilation and sunlight, virus-containing droplets from infected individuals are more likely to spread, settle and stay viable,” he said.

“Meat factories and slaughterhouses are locations where people are engaged in higher levels of physical activity, and where maintaining physical distancing in internal spaces will be difficult, and difficult to monitor,” added Kao. “Both these factors may increase the likelihood of transmission.”

Professor James Wood, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, said in The Independent that it also might be difficult to social distance “on a fast-moving slaughter line”, and the “substantial air movement that exists in or across many slaughterhouses and meat plants” could be another possible explanation. “That having been said, many meat plants do have established practices that involve standard use of PPE (personal protective equipment) which they should find relatively easy to extend,” Wood added.

“As soon as the button was pressed at the end of March, our industry spent quite a few million pounds putting in perspex screens, extra PPE etc,” Lindars from the BMPA said in the report. “We were very fast to react to government advice.”

He said some factories have “reduced their capacity and efficiency” by spacing sheep carcasses out more on the slaughter line to make it easier to social distance.

But Bev Clarkson, national officer at Unite, said that close working conditions were “no excuse” for the outbreaks. “While it is true that there are difficulties in maintaining staff distancing at many sites, this is no excuse – especially since similar outbreaks in the US and other countries have been widely reported on,” Clarkson said.

Full report in The Independent

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