Alarm as another German abattoir hit by coronavirus outbreak

Greenpeace activists protest against the meat industry in front of the Federal Chancellery in Berlin. (AP pic)

FRANKFURT: Germany has uncovered another cluster of coronavirus infections at a slaughterhouse, fuelling alarm about working conditions in the country’s meat packing plants.

A total of 92 employees at the Westfleisch abattoir in Lower Saxony state have tested positive, local authorities in Osnabrück district announced late Sunday.

The plant has been closed until further notice and staff have been placed in quarantine, joining a slew of other German slaughterhouses hit by outbreaks.

Many of the cases have been among workers from eastern Europe, mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, who often live in shared accommodation.

Germany has grown increasingly concerned about the meat industry as a hotbed of new coronavirus infections, just as the nation emerges from lockdown and attempts to restart its battered economy.

Similar clusters have occurred at abattoirs in France and the United States as well.

A large outbreak at a slaughterhouse in the district of Coesfeld in western Germany earlier this month prompted authorities to order mass testing at meat processing sites across the country.

More than 260 cases have now been confirmed at the Coesfeld plant.

Another abattoir in the state of Schleswig-Holstein has reported over 100 cases, while one in Bavaria has had around 60.

Shady

German Labour Minister Hubertus Heil on Monday called for stricter oversight of the industry, long dogged by complaints over health and safety as well as cramped communal housing for foreign workers.

“These grievances are a problem even without a pandemic. But during the coronavirus crisis, they have become a dangerous health risk for employees and the entire population,” Heil told reporters.

The minister is set to hold talks with his Romanian counterpart on Tuesday, before Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet is to decide on improved checks and regulations for the industry on Wednesday.

The meat sector’s widespread use of subcontractors to supply labourers from abroad, in particular, is likely to come under intense scrutiny with Heil describing the practice as “shady”.

German food industry union NGG has called on the government to ban subcontracting altogether, saying it had allowed German meat firms “to outsource responsibility” for workers.

But slaughterhouses aren’t the only cause for concern.

A refugee home in St Augustin, near Bonn, has also been hit hard by Covid-19.

Around 120 of its 500 residents have tested positive so far, local officials said Monday.

Despite the localised outbreaks, Germany’s overall infection rate has stabilised at a relatively low level.

The country has now recorded a total of 174,697 coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest figures from the Robert Koch Institute for disease control.

Just over 7,900 people have died, a far lower fatality rate than in other European countries.