Why are meat factories a coronavirus hotspot?
Professor Chris Elliott discusses the recent surge in COVID-19 outbreaks within meat factory environments.
We had the very unwelcome news over the past weeks that many hundreds of workers tested positive for coronavirus at a number of meat plants and abattoirs in Wales and England. This is not an issue restricted to the UK but has occurred in a number of other European countries, such as Spain, The Netherlands, Ireland, France and Germany – all which have reporting many dozens of outbreaks.
The German issues seem to be the most severe, with up to 4,000 cases being reported so far. This is despite numerous measures being put in place to try and protect workers and keep the plants fully operational. It is important to note, however, that many meat plants across the UK and, indeed, Europe have reported very few issues if any, and it is very much business as normal or at least the ‘new normal’.
There has been a lot of discussion and speculation as to why the breakouts have started to emerge several months into the pandemic. It has also been reported that a number of UK authorities, such as Defra, Public Health England and the Food Standards Agency, are now collecting evidence from outbreaks across the world to try and determine the underlying causes of the growing problem.
While the investigations are ongoing, it is very important to state that there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted from meat to humans or vice versa. Another significant point to make is that the meat industry and UK Government have (and are) working very closely together to develop measures to protect workers and allow the industry to keep functioning to help feed the nation.
From all the information I have been able to collect and by discussing the outbreaks with industry experts, it appears to be to be a multifactorial problem and there is no quick fix on the horizon. The working environment is the first factor that needs to be highlighted. For those that have not had the experience of being inside a meat processing plant, I can tell you that they are cold, damp and noisy places to work. They are also very labour intensive, with many workers on production lines in close contact with one another. These all combine to make the working environment ‘high risk’ in terms of coronavirus. But these factors were all well understood at the outset of the pandemic and there were measures put in place to mitigate against these risks. Clearly, in many such meat companies they have been successful.
There is the potential that where the outbreaks have occurred there have been additional risks factors, such as the way air flows across the factories, the speed of airflow, and how the air is filtered. These are being investigated I am not aware of any firm conclusions as of yet.
There is growing evidence that some of the issues relate to the workforce that operate the meat processing plants. The meat industry (and many other food sectors in Europe) relies heavily on migrant workers. In the case of the UK, English is not their first language and often their knowledge of English is very limited. These workers live together, often in quite crowed accommodation to keep costs to a minimum so they can send as much money home as possible. They travel to and from work together, eat together, socialise together, and get a lot of their information from news media from their home countries and families. All of these can be considered as ‘additional risk factors’ and no magic bullets are available to alleviate risk, but then again, many of the meat plants across Europe operate with migrant workers and have done so with no indications of major breakdowns.
Perhaps the best way to deal with the social related issues is to look for best practice across the industry? Of paramount importance is the protection of these essential workers in our country who strive to support their families and keep meat on our plates.