Official: German slaughterhouse virus outbreak untenable

BERLIN (AP) - The German Minister of Agriculture said 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 730 people at the Toennies Group's meat packaging facility in Rheda-Wiedenbrück tested positive for the new coronavirus, an increase of 73 since Wednesday.
“Hundreds of infections in one plant. These conditions are unsustainable, "said Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner in a statement. She added that it was correct that officials in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the plant is located, had launched a probe to identify the source of the infections.
After a number of previous corona virus clusters in slaughterhouses, the federal government promised to stop the practice of using subcontractors who often hire migrant workers and place them in cramped quarters. However, some legislators have warned of the risk that jobs could be relocated abroad.
Coronavirus outbreaks have also affected meat packaging plants in other countries, including the United States. The United Food and Commercial Workers union recently announced that at least 44 US abattoir workers have died from the virus and another 3,000 have tested positive.
Activists said the outbreak in one of the largest slaughterhouses in Germany, which employs around 7,000 people, shows the need for change.
"It is no coincidence that the Toennies slaughterhouse has become the next hot spot for coronavirus infections," said Freddy Adjan, vice chairman of the NGG union, which represents workers in the food and beverage industry.
Adjan said that workers employed by subcontractors are exposed to "catastrophic working and living conditions".
"This sick system must finally end," said Adjan. "The government's decision, which includes a ban on contract work, must be fully implemented in the legislative process."
Toennies said the outbreak could be linked to recent worker trips, particularly from Eastern Europe, after the borders were reopened.
However, experts asked whether such a large outbreak - which resulted in more cases than the whole country usually reports in a day - could have been caused by travel alone.
"Working conditions in slaughterhouses do not seem to be very compatible with the hygiene measures currently required," said Isabella Eckerle, who heads the Center for Emerging Virus Diseases at the University of Geneva.
"In my view, the large number of (infected) employees indicate an undetected" super-spreading event "in the company that has been going on for some time," she said.
A company spokesman, Andre Vielstaedte, said conditions in the area where carcasses are cut may also have played a role. The temperatures in a humid atmosphere in which aerosols are formed are between 5 and 12 degrees Celsius and the virus can then spread in the air. "
Karl-Josef Laumann, the health minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, said the extent of the outbreak in Toennies was "intense" and found that about two thirds of all tests had been positive so far.
"Of course I'm a little worried about what will happen if we test the other 6,000 over the next few days," he said.
Officials said another 10 people from Southeastern and Eastern Europe also had positive tests in the Guetersloh district, even though they were not working in the meat factory.
The region has asked the German army to participate in the mass tests of other slaughterhouse workers.
In the meantime, dozens of parents protested the decision to close schools and daycare centers in the county because of the outbreak.
The daily reported number of infections in Germany rose again to over 500 for the first time in a week on Thursday. The number did not yet include the cases from Guetersloh, but about 100 infections were recorded from a house in the central German city Göttingen were reported.
Germany has recorded nearly 190,000 cases of COVID-19 and 8,868 deaths since the outbreak, according to Johns Hopkins University.
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