Abattoir outbreak triggers surge in German coronavirus infections

Germany’s coronavirus infection rate has shot up to its highest level for weeks after more than 1,000 abattoir employees tested positive for the virus, sparking a debate about working conditions in its meat processing industry.

The army has been deployed to the abattoir at Rheda-Wiedenbrück, in the industrialised North Rhine-Westphalia region, to help with testing, tracking and quarantining its 6,500 workers.

The high level of infections among workers at the slaughterhouse, which has been closed for two weeks, was the main factor pushing up Germany’s coronavirus reproduction rate — or R-rate — to 1.79, from 1.06 on Friday.

The R-rate is the average number of new cases generated by an infected individual. If it is above 1, an outbreak expands exponentially. An R-rate below 1 — as has now been achieved in most European countries — means the outbreak is contracting.

The Robert Koch Institute said Germany’s R rate was particularly sensitive to local virus outbreaks because the overall level of new cases was so low. “A nationwide increase in case numbers is not anticipated,” it said.

The spread of the virus between workers at the slaughterhouse is the largest single outbreak in Germany, which has been widely praised for the way it has handled the pandemic so far. 

It has prompted the regional government to debate whether to reintroduce the lockdown that has been progressively eased in recent weeks. Schools and nurseries in the area around the infection site have been closed and the public prosecutor has opened an investigation into potential breaches of the law on preventing the spread of infection diseases.

The abattoir in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, which slaughters almost 50,000 pigs each day, is owned by Tönnies, Germany’s largest meat-processing group. The company is facing rising criticism for the poor working and living conditions of its employees, many of whom are from Romania and Bulgaria and work for an outside agency.

Serious outbreaks of the virus have forced the closure of a number of slaughterhouses around the world, from the US to Australia, shining a spotlight on working practices and poor hygiene standards in the meat processing industry.

A protestor in front of the abattoir in Rheda-Wiedenbrück A protester in front of the abattoir in Rheda-Wiedenbrück © Ina Fassbender/AFP /Getty

Clemens Tönnies, the billionaire co-owner of the company who is also chairman of Schalke football club, said at a press conference on Saturday: “As an entrepreneur, who is primarily concerned with people, I can only apologise. We are the cause of this issue and are fully responsible.”

There is growing criticism among politicians and union officials of the poor working conditions at Germany’s slaughterhouses that enable the country to buy its beloved sausages and schnitzel at very low prices. 

“Meat is too cheap,” Julia Klöckner, the German minister for food and agriculture, wrote in a tweet on Saturday. “Junk prices at the counter do not reflect the value. Because animals were slaughtered for it, we should always remember that.”

After hundreds of abattoir workers tested positive for coronavirus last month, the government announced plans to stop the meat industry hiring many of its 200,000 workers through agencies that bring cheap labour from eastern Europe.

By June 20, Germany had 189,822 confirmed Covid-19 cases, according to the Robert Koch Institute, making it the 11th-worst-hit country. But the number of people who have died from the disease is 8,883, or 4.7 per cent of the total. That is far below the death rates in most other European countries.