Professor Chris Elliott discusses the recent increase in COVID-19 epidemics in meat factory environments.
In the past few weeks, we have had very bad news that several hundred workers are positive for coronavirus at a number of meat plants and slaughterhouses in Wales and England. This problem is not limited to the UK but has occurred in a number of other European countries, such as Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, France and Germany – which have all reported dozens of outbreaks.
German problems seem to be the most serious, with up to 4,000 cases reported to date. This is despite many measures put in place to try to protect workers and keep factories fully operational. It is important to note, however, that many meat factories in the UK and, in fact, in Europe, have reported very few problems, if any, and that business is completely normal or at least the “New standard”.
There has been much discussion and speculation as to why the outbreaks began to emerge several months after 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 epidemics around the world in an attempt to determine the underlying causes of the problem. croissant.
Although investigations are underway, 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 important point to emphasize is that the meat industry and the British government have (and work) very closely together to develop measures to protect workers and allow the industry to continue to function to help feed the nation .
From all the information I have gathered and from discussing epidemics with industry experts, it seems to be a multifactorial problem and there is no silver bullet on the horizon. The working environment is the first factor to highlight. For those who have not had the experience of being inside a meat processing plant, I can tell you that these are cold, humid and noisy places to work. They are also very labor intensive, with many workers on production lines in close contact with each other. All of these combine to make the work environment “high risk” in terms of coronavirus. But these factors were all well understood at the start of the pandemic and measures were put in place to mitigate these risks. Obviously, in many of these meat businesses, they have been successful.
It is possible that where the outbreaks have occurred, there have been additional risk factors, such as the way air circulates in factories, the speed of air flow and the way air is filtered. These are under investigation, I am not aware of any definitive conclusions at this time.
It is increasingly evident that some of the problems are related to the labor force operating the meat processing plants. The meat industry (and many other food sectors in Europe) is highly dependent on migrant workers. In the case of the United Kingdom, English is not their first language and their knowledge of English is often very limited. These workers live together, often in homes that are busy enough to keep costs to a minimum so they can send as much money home as possible. They travel together to go to work, eat together, socialize together and obtain much of their information from the media of their country of origin and their families. All of these factors can be considered as “ additional risk factors ” and no magic bullet is available to mitigate the risk, but then again, many meat factories across Europe operate with migrant workers and l ‘have done without indication of major breakdowns.
Maybe the best way to deal with social issues is to look for best practices in the industry? The protection of these essential workers in our country who strive to provide for their families and keep the meat on our plates is of paramount importance.