Sinn Féin spokesperson on Agriculture, Matt Carthy TD, has cautiously welcomed the commitment he secured that an investigation into the transmission of Covid-19 in meat processing plants.
The Cavan-Monaghan TD has called on the Minister to outline the intended timeline of the investigation, saying that ‘while the investigation must be thorough, time is also a critical factor here given the real implications for many workers in these plants and the wider community’.
Teachta Carthy said:
“Ideally such an investigation would have begun months ago. Much of our time at the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 was taken up dealing with outbreaks at meat plants, so it has long been apparent that this was necessary.
“While I welcome that this investigation has now commenced, I do have a number of concerns.
“The parliamentary question that confirmed this investigation indicates that environmental sampling was carried out in the course of a pilot study in July/August, but makes no reference to further sampling.
“There were a number of outbreaks in Meat Plants since that period and if sampling was not carried out at these factories it will limit the potential of this investigation from the beginning.
“An investigation is also only as good as the action it delivers, and I am cognisant that this government has chosen to disregard recommendations of several studies carried out with regard to meat plants in the past.
“The National Outbreak Control Team recommended in July that the Minister for Health enact legislation to allow for the closure of meat plants, and this advice was rejected by the government.
“I was also particularly surprised that while the Minister chose to focus on the likely significant transmission vector of chilled air re-circulation, no reference is made to any other potential modes of transmission such as the working and living conditions of workers.
“The Minister references a research group involved in a large scale study of an outbreak within a meat plant in Germany. It appears that he is alluded to research I cited at the Covid Committee, carried out by Thomas Günther et al.
“I would therefore draw the Ministers attention to the finding that while other factors such as shared accommodation or travel to work did not appear to play a role in the initial outbreak, they may well have been a ‘confounding factor in the context of the second, larger outbreak’.
“The Minister should not seek to pre-empt the findings of this investigation, and certainly not when the case may be that part of the solution may be improving the lot of those workers at risk within these meat plants.
“In a week when Covid-19 restrictions have been eased, it is crucially important that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past that led to severe clusters. That must mean that there is a robust monitoring process of the meat processing sector.”CRÍOCH/ENDS
Note to editor:
QUESTION – Matt Carthy TD
To ask the Minister for Agriculture; Food and the Marine the retrospective environmental investigation that has been carried out to further explore the potential underlying reasons for outbreaks of Covid-19 associated with meat processing plants; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
REPLY – Minister Charlie McConalogue TD
My Department participated in a National Outbreak Control Team (NOCT), convened by the Health Services Executive (HSE) to oversee the investigation of COVID-19 in Meat Processing Plants (MPPs) and agreed to co-ordinate further studies of factors that might have contributed to within-plant transmission of COVID-19 – focusing on operational and environmental factors in affected meat processing plants (MPPs).
In the first instance, my Department conducted a pilot study (during July/ early August 2020) in a single affected plant as a feasibility assessment of in-depth retrospective investigation. This pilot study was undertaken by a multi-disciplinary team, comprising officials from different state agencies, academic researchers from three universities and technical managers at the pilot plant and it encompassed expertise in occupational health, medical microbiology, aerosol science, food safety regulation and meat processing operations.
The investigative team assembled documents describing the layout and operation of the plant, the sequence of events that had occurred and the distribution of COVID-19 cases. This was followed up by a site visit, which included a semi-structured interview with local managers (primarily to clarify how COVID-19 risk was assessed and managed on site) and a walk through different working areas of the plant to observe key operational steps and risk mitigation measures.
A subgroup of the investigative team spent several days undertaking physical and environmental measurements, including measuring bio-aerosols. Bio-aerosols were measured in the boning hall and compared with similar measurements in the abattoir. A gradual but steady increase in the concentration of bio-aerosols (and the concentration of CO2) was measured over the course of a working shift in the boning hall but not in the abattoir.
Although, these findings are preliminary and only represent one affected plant at one specific point in time, they corroborate other international findings highlighting a particular risk in MPPs relating to the re-circulation of chilled air in those working areas where meat is cut and packaged (an industry norm to comply with food hygiene regulations).
Further studies are warranted to establish if this is a consistent pattern in affected Irish meat plants and to validate additional mitigation measures.
In this context my Department, senior UCD academics and other partners in Ireland, Northern Ireland and overseas made a grant application to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) seeking funding for further studies in reply to their latest COVID-19 rapid research call. This research consortium includes the research group and meat processor involved in investigation of a large outbreak in a German MPP.
As a result of this application, funding will be made available from 1 December to hire dedicated researchers to work with relevant state agencies and meat plant operators on a comprehensive suite of solutions to control and prevent COVID-19 in food businesses and other workplaces.