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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EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point.