COVID-19 cases confirmed in three Irish meat processing plants

Ireland’s agriculture minister reports six infection clusters at plants.
calendar icon 4 May 2020
clock icon 3 minute read

According to reporting in The Irish Times and RTE (Ireland’s national broadcaster), staff in the three meat plants are self-isolating. The infection clusters are stoking fears for the country’s agrifood sector.

A spokesperson for Meat Industry Ireland, an industry group who represent producers, said production levels and processing throughput for the Irish beef industry is down about 20 percent on equivalent weeks in 2018, and down 30 percent compared to early March 2020, before lockdown measures were announced.

He says that the reduction, “is due to market disruption and the loss of demand from the food service market rather than any limitation on operational capacity.”

The Dawn Meats plant in Kilbeggan announced on 1 May that it would idle operations, “out of an abundance of caution,” after four confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“Dawn Meats takes the health, safety and welfare of employees, suppliers, contractors and visitors extremely seriously,” it said. “We have implemented a detailed series of measures to manage risks associated with Covid-19, and to maintain social distancing in our facilities in line with procedures recommended by the Health Service Executive (HSE) and other government agencies.

“When we became aware of four confirmed cases of Covid-19 amongst workers in Kilbeggan we decided to defer production in the plant yesterday.”

The company reports that the cases represent less than two percent of staff at the plant.

Dawn Meats said the decision would have “no impact” on its ability to supply customers or receive cattle from farmers throughout its network of plants across the country.

Members of the Dáil, Ireland’s parliament, raised concerns on 30 April in relation to other plants.

Sinn Féin agriculture spokesman Brian Stanley said he had received a number of complaints from factories of Rosderra Irish Meats.

“…That factory, there are around 350 workers on the factory floor. There was up to 140 of those out sick throughout last week and 120 tested positive.”

A spokeswoman for Rosderra Irish Meats Group said co-ordinated testing of all staff at its Roscrea plant has been taking place.

“A number of employees had a positive result from that testing, and they are self-isolating per HSE protocols,” it said. “We have reconfigured the process with the remaining staff who have been tested and are clear of Covid-19 and are continuing with a scaled-down process in the short-term until the staff return.

“We expect those staff will be returning over the next number of weeks having adhered to HSE protocols.”

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed said his department was “aware of six clusters [of Covid-19], five in processing plants and one in a deboning plant”

IFA response

IFA President Tim Cullinan said the presence of clusters of COVID-19 in meat processing plants is concerning.

“The priority must remain the safety of everybody working in the sector, both inside the farmgate and outside it. It’s important that measures are in place to protect those working in plants. The processors should continue to work closely with the HSE,” he said.

“While there are very real concerns regarding clusters of COVID-19 in some plants, the vast majority of processing facilities have had few or no cases. Processors are going to great lengths to ensure the safety of their workers,” he said.

“It’s important that the processing sector continues to function. The food chain needs to stay moving and provide fresh produce to consumers. We need to avoid a build-up of animals on farms which could result in animal welfare challenges,” he said.

“Farmers also need income during this very difficult time. While prices have been dropping, with beef prices being particularly badly hit, it is important that farmers can still sell their animals and have some form of income,” he said.

“Given the importance of the food chain, there would be merit in making workers in the sector a priority for testing, after health care workers,” he said.

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