Covid-19 outbreak at German meat plant shines light on industry shortcomings

Berlin, Jun 19 (efe-epa).- The outbreak of Covid-19 at a German meat-processing plant has shone a light on shortcomings in the industry both with regards to working conditions and hygiene protocol.

The resurgence of the coronavirus at the Tönnies meat plant in Gütersloh not only raises concerns at a political level in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is home to 18 million, but throws up legal issues, too.

Public prosecutors in Bielefeld have opened a probe into suspected breaches of health and safety and the emergency hygiene rules put in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Five lawsuits have been filed against the company, including one by the Green Party. North Rhine-Westphalia was the second-worst hit state in Germany in terms of infection numbers after Bavaria.

The new outbreak was first detected in the city of Coesfeld, where 130 infections were detected in the Tönnies workforce in May. Then another 750 were detected in Gütersloh after 11,000 tests were conducted on workers, their families and close contacts.

At least 5,300 other company employees are due to take a test in the coming days. If someone tests positive, they must observe a period of quarantine and repeat tests until they come back negative.

The state government in North Rhine-Westphalia has announced an independent investigation into the case.

Local health minister Karl-Josef Laumann said: “The ministry will take responsibility for a scientific report that must get to the bottom of the outbreak from an epidemiological point of view.”

“We need to pinpoint how coronavirus outbreaks occur in the meat industry.”

The announcement by the health minister followed controversial remarks by the regional head of government, conservative politician Armin Laschet, who spoke of “imported cases” in reference to the migrant Bulgarian and Romanian workers often employed by the company.

The remarks were enough to elicit protests from Bulgaria and Romania and Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, invited him to retract them.

Laschet, a member of chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, later walked back on his comments and said he meant the outbreak had not been a result of failures in the regional health system.

But politics aside, what is clear is that the outbreaks in Gütersloh and Coefeld are not isolated cases.

Many of the workers at the Tönnies firms are seasonal laborers and they are often offered lodgings that barely meet minimum hygiene standards.

Fuelling the controversy, a video published Friday on the private Ntv channel allegedly showed how the Tönnies meat processing plant had breached the special health and safety rules enforced by the agriculture ministry in abid to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

The images appear to show workers in close conditions while sharing food in the canteen.

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