There have been clusters of coronavirus cases in abattoirs in Australia, and around the world. The US has recorded more than 17,000 COVID-19 cases from meat factory workers, while Melbourne’s Cedar Meats outbreak is linked to over 100 cases. We ask experts why this is happening.
Meat factories and abattoirs are a higher risk for COVID-19 transmission than many other workplaces. Experts point to the cold temperatures, the tight spaces on the production line, and dry air.
It’s been a familiar story across the globe. There have been several outbreaks in abattoirs and meatworks in the US. The Centre for Disease Control found in a study this May -- that was updated in July -- that there were 17,358 cases of coronavirus from meat and poultry factory workers. And of those cases, 91 ended in COVID-19 related deaths.
In Europe, there have been outbreaks at abattoirs in France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
And in Australia, we’ve seen outbreaks at Melbourne meat facility Cedar Meats where a cluster of over 100 cases was linked to the outbreak at the abattoir. More recently, two other Melbourne abattoirs - Somerville Meats and JBS Meats - have recorded cases amongst their staff, and sent employees home immediately.
What is it about meatworks?
Long hours, prolonged periods of close contact and difficulty practising physical distancing means it's more difficult to maintain COVID-Safe regulations in an abattoir.
"There's a lot of machinery and equipment that can't just spread that out. And because people are in there for long periods of time and working particularly hard, they're not able to implement another mitigation strategy," said Associate Professor Paul Griffin, from Mater Health.
Dr Fiona Stanaway outlines two reasons for the outbreaks at meat and poultry facilities: the setup and cold, dry air.
She agrees that the layout of meat factories often sees people working in close quarters and for long hours which limits the capacity of workers to physical distance effectively.
"Having a group of people reasonably close together in a closed environment increases the risk of transmission," said Dr Fiona Stanaway, a clinical epidemiologist at Melbourne University.
The virus spreads through droplet transmission, which isn't helped in environments like abattoirs where there is cold and dry air. Dr Stanaway explains the temperature is cool to reduce other infections, however, it heightens the transmission of COVID-19.
"[The environment] actually allows the droplets to sit together sort of surviving for longer than if the air was hot and humid," Dr Stanaway told The Feed.
"And so probably both of those things, kind of create this environment where if one worker is infected, it's quite likely to spread."
And the reason the virus is more stable within colder conditions is that COVID-19 can last longer on surfaces like metal when temperatures are reduced.
Can COVID-19 spread through the meat products?
No. Experts are clear there is nothing that links the spread of the virus with meat products.
"I am unaware of any documented case worldwide, where for instance meat had been associated with the transmission of COVID-19," Prof Cowie said.
"This is a respiratory virus spread through droplets and respiratory secretions."
The amount of community transmission can dictate how severe some of the outbreaks in abattoirs can potentially be. Dr Stanaway uses the example of the US, where the community transmission far exceeds Australia, and how that's impacted the level of outbreaks in meat facilities.
Dr Stanaway says the worker who picks up the virus within the community can spread easily in environments like meatworks, nursing homes or public housing towers -- because those environments facilitate transmission.
She says that reducing community transmission - via the steps currently implemented in Victoria through lockdowns and increased testing and contact tracing is a must.
"Because while you have community transmission at higher rates, you've got much more risk of having infections like this take-off," according to Dr Stanaway.
What needs to happen?
There's been increased testing and contact tracing across Australia in the last few months. Dr Stanaway is adamant workers in abattoirs need to get tested as soon as they have any symptoms.
"Because that way, they can try and do the contact tracing and stop the outbreaks when they're at an early stage," she said.
Otherwise, community transmission of the virus can increase, and become harder to control.
But Prof Cowie thinks there is a necessity to implement a few structural changes into the workforce.
There's the obvious physical distancing of 1.5 metres, however, that can prove difficult in a workplace like an abattoir -- so instead he's called for personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers.
"If it is unavoidable to have people within proximity first for those periods of time, then they really should be issued with and trained to use personal protective equipment," Prof Cowie said.
He says the implementation of PPE - in this case, masks - will reduce the concerns of standing next to someone who may be infectious, because it may take up to 48 hours before symptoms arrive.
After the cluster was identified at Cedar Meats, operations were closed from late April until late May, with all staff cleared by the Department of Health and Human Services before returning. General Manager Tony Kairouz said at the time, "Our aim is to provide a safe and healthy environment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic."
He said, “The safety and wellbeing of all people will always be our number one priority and inherent in that is a happy place to work and thriving business that provides security of income to our people and their families."
Workers at Cedar Meats however alleged that masks were not provided to staff until several days after the first COVID-19 case was recorded, and a Worksafe investigation is underway.
Victoria's Chief Medical Officer told media over the weekend that Somerville Meats (Somerville Retail Services) and JBS Abattoir were both shut for deep cleaning after employees had tested positive, and "the entire workforce is effectively in quarantine, very broad testing is being done and those numbers will be controlled by virtue of that." Premier Daniel Andrews has asked Victorians to wear masks in circumstances where maintaining social distancing is difficult. The Feed has reached out to Cedar Meats, Somerville and JBS Meats for comment.
Additionally, to ensure there are no crowded spaces when workers are on break, Prof Cowie says it would be wise to add staggered break times.
“So that not everyone's on break at the same time, in the same space,” he said.
Residents in metropolitan Melbourne are subject to stay-at-home orders and can only leave home for essential work, study, exercise or care responsibilities. People are also advised to wear masks in public.
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.
If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus