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

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.

Cheap meat called into question after large coronavirus outbreak at German slaughterhouse
The Tönnies factory in Gütersloh district. Photo: DPA

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. 


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.

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.

READ ALSO: 'Unacceptable': Possible Merkel successor under fire over eastern European coronavirus claims

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.

READ ALSO: Germany to reform meat industry after corona outbreak exposes abuses

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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Could there be a new wave of Covid-19 in Germany this autumn?

It’s back again: amid sinking temperatures, the incidence of Covid-19 has been slowly rising in Germany. But is this enough to merit worrying about the virus?

Could there be a new wave of Covid-19 in Germany this autumn?

More people donning face masks in supermarkets, friends cancelling plans last minute due to getting sick with Covid-19. We might have seen some of those familiar reminders recently that the coronavirus is still around, but could there really be a resurgence of the virus like we experienced during the pandemic years?

According to virologists, the answer seems to be ‘maybe’: since July, the number of people newly infected with Covid-19 has been slowly rising from a very low level.

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), nine people per 100,000 inhabitants became newly infected in Germany last week. A year ago, there were only around 270 reported cases.

Various Corona variants are currently on the loose in the country. According to the RKI,  the EG.5 (also called Eris) and XBB.1.16 lines were each detected in the week ending September 3rd with a share of just under 23 percent. 

The highly mutated variant BA.2.86 (Pirola), which is currently under observation by the World Health Organisation (WHO), also arrived in the country this week, according to RKI. 

High number of unreported case

The RKI epidemiologists also warned about a high number of unreported cases since hardly any testing is done. They pointed out that almost half of all registered sewage treatment plants report an increasing viral load in wastewater tests.

The number of hospital admissions has also increased slightly, but are still a far cry from the occupation rate amid the pandemic. Last week it was two per 100,000 inhabitants. In the intensive care units, only 1.2 percent of all beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients.

Still, a good three-quarters (76.4 percent) of people in Germany have been vaccinated at least twice and thus have basic immunity, reported RKI. 

Since Monday, doctors’ offices have been vaccinating with the adapted vaccine from Biontech/Pfizer, available to anyone over 12 years old, with a vaccine for small children set to be released the following week and one for those between 5 and 11 to come out October 2nd.

But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has so far only recommended that people over 60 and those with pre-existing conditions get vaccinated.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Who should get a Covid jab this autumn in Germany?

“The pandemic is over, the virus remains,” he said. “We cannot predict the course of coming waves of corona, but it is clear that older people and people with pre-existing conditions remain at higher risk of becoming severely ill from Covid-19”

The RKI also recommended that people with a cold voluntarily wear a mask. Anyone exhibiting cough, cold, sore throat or other symptoms of a respiratory illness should voluntarily stay at home for three to five days and take regular corona self-tests. 

However, further measures such as contact restrictions are not necessary, he said.

One of many diseases

As of this autumn, Covid-19 could be one of many respiratory diseases. As with influenza, there are no longer absolute infection figures for coronavirus.

Saarbrücken pharmacist Thorsten Lehr told German broadcaster ZDF that self-protection through vaccinations, wearing a mask and getting tested when symptoms appear are prerequisites for surviving the Covid autumn well. 

Only a new, more aggressive mutation could completely turn the game around, he added.

On April 7th of this year, Germany removed the last of its over two-year long coronavirus restrictions, including mask-wearing in some public places.

READ ALSO: German doctors recommend Covid-19 self-tests amid new variant