Cheap meat called into question after large coronavirus outbreak at German slaughterhouse

Cheap meat called into question after large coronavirus outbreak at German slaughterhouse
The Tönnies factory in Gütersloh district. Photo: DPA
The low cost of meat and working conditions in the industry are under the spotlight after hundreds of people contracted coronavirus at a meat processing plant in western Germany.

The Rheda-Wiedenbrück slaughterhouse run by Tönnies, Germany's leading meat processing company, in Gütersloh, is currently closed after 730 employees were confirmed to have Covid-19.

And around 7,000 people are in quarantine in the district, near Bielefeld in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

Now working conditions in the industry, accommodation for workers, and the low cost of meat have become the focus as authorities try to control the outbreak. 

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The plant joins a string of German slaughterhouses that have suffered similar outbreaks recently.

“There are hair-raising special promotions where meat is sold well below its value,” NRW agriculture minister Ursula Heinen-Esser told the Rheinische Post newspaper.

She said the state is working on a Bundesrat (the legislative body that represents the 16 states of Germany at the federal level) initiative in a bid to tackle this issue.

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There have been recurring outbreaks across the world at slaugherhouses which experts say could have long-term implications for food supply systems.

The reasons for the outbreaks are thought to be a number of factors such as: crowded working conditions, workforces that are often made up predominantly of migrant workers living in communal housing, and the fact that plants have remained open during the coronavirus crisis.

Many of the employees in Germany's meat processing industry come from central and eastern Europe.

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Federal Labour Minister Hubertus Heil called the outbreak “shocking”.

He said this is what happens “when workers from central and eastern Europe are not treated fairly in our country”.

In the summer, Heil intends to present a law requiring digital recording of working hours in the meat industry.

The draft law agreed last month by the government will also force slaughterhouses to quit the practise of hiring eastern Europeans on short term contracts and will impose heavy fines on companies that fail to comply.

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NRW health minister Karl-Josef Laumann added: “We must investigate how the corona outbreaks in the meat industry are caused.”

As The Local reported, Gütersloh district decided to close all schools and daycare centers (Kitas) until the summer holidays in a bid to try and slow the spread of Covid-19 in the area.

A total of 1106 results ordered by the authorities have been evaluated so far, with 730 of them coming back positive.

'Meat not in short supply'

There have been some concerns that the disruption will lead to empty shelves in supermarkets.

But the temporary closure of Germany's largest slaughterhouse will not lead to supply bottlenecks according to experts. “Meat is not in short supply in Germany, not even pork,” said Tim Koch of the Agrarmarkt Informations-Gesellschaft (Agricultural Market Information Society) in Bonn.

According to figures from the Federal Statistical Office, 55.1 million pigs were slaughtered in Germany last year, three percent less than in 2018.


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