BERLIN (AP) – The German Minister of Agriculture said on Thursday that conditions in a slaughterhouse where hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19 were unsustainable and supported an official investigation into the outbreak.
Authorities in the western region of Guetersloh said that 730 people at the Toennies Group’s meat processing plant in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck had tested positive for the new corona virus, an increase of 73 since Wednesday.
Hundreds of infections in one plant. These conditions are not sustainable, “said Minister of Agriculture Julia Kloeckner in a statement. She added that it was good that officials in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the factory is located, have investigated the source of the infections .
After a series of previous coronavirus clusters in slaughterhouses, the German government promised to crack down on the use of subcontractors, who often hire migrant workers and house them in tight housing. But some lawmakers have warned about the risk of jobs moving abroad.
Coronavirus outbreaks have also affected meat processing plants in other countries, including the United States. The United Food and Commercial Workers union recently said that at least 44 slaughterhouse workers in the United States have died from the virus and another 3,000 have tested positive.
Labor campaigners said the outbreak in one of Germany’s largest slaughterhouses, which employs around 7,000 people, showed a need for change.
“It is no coincidence that the Toennies slaughterhouse has become the next hot spot of coronavirus infections,” said Freddy Adjan, the vice president of the NGG union representing workers in the food and beverage industry.
Adjan said workers employed by subcontractors are facing “catastrophic working and living conditions”.
“This sick system must finally stop,” said Adjan. “The government’s decision to ban contract work must be fully implemented in the legislative process.”
Toennies said the outbreak could be linked to recent travels by workers, especially from Eastern Europe, after the borders began to reopen.
But experts wondered if such a major outbreak – resulting in more cases than the entire country normally reports one day – could have been caused by traveling alone.
“Working conditions in slaughterhouses do not seem to be very compatible with the currently required hygiene measures,” said Isabella Eckerle, head of the center for emerging viral diseases at the University of Geneva.
“In my opinion, the large number of (infected) employees indicates an undetected” super-spreading event “in the company that has been going on for a while,” she said.
A company spokesperson, Andre Vielstaedte, said conditions in the areas where carcasses are carved could also have played a role, saying temperatures are “5 to 12 degrees Celsius (41 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit) in a humid atmosphere where aerosols are formed and the virus can then spread through the air. “
Karl-Josef Laumann, the health minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, said the magnitude of the outbreak in Toennies was “intense”, noting that about two thirds of all tests had come back positive so far.
“Of course I am a bit concerned about what will happen if we test the next 6000 in the next few days,” he said.
Officials said another 10 people from Southeast and Eastern Europe had also tested positive in Guetersloh province, although they were not working in the meat factory.
The region has asked the German military to help mass test other slaughterhouse workers.
Meanwhile, dozens of parents protested the decision to close schools and nurseries in the province because of the outbreak.
The daily reported number of infections in Germany rose above 500 for the first time in a week on Thursday. Although the figure did not yet include cases from Guetersloh, it recorded as many as 100 infections reported from an apartment building in the central German city of Goettingen.
Germany has registered nearly 190,000 COVID-19 cases and 8,868 deaths since the outbreak began, according to a note from Johns Hopkins University.
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