Covid-19 outbreak at Europe’s largest slaughterhouse

Germany
Published:  23 June, 2020

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, several slaughterhouses in Germany have been identified as sources of contamination, but this time more than 1,300 people have been tested positive for the virus at a Tönnies slaughterhouse, the largest in Europe.

The slaughterhouse owned by Tönnies is located near the city of Gütersloh, in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia. More than 1,300 cases were detected on June 21, four days after the cluster was identified. Over the past few days, local media have portrayed dozens of police officers responsible for enforcing quarantine measures imposed on the sick and their families, Red Cross volunteers equipped with masks, gloves and goggles distributing food to residents in the area surrounding the slaughterhouse; and even soldiers screening some of the 6,700 slaughterhouse workers, who are Bulgarians and Romanians for the most part, working on subcontracts and, allegedly, often lodged in precarious and overcrowded collective housing provided by the company.

On June 21, Hubertus Heil, Germany’s Labour Minister, reportedly demanded that Tönnies pay damages. “There must be a civil liability of the company”, he told a Bild Online broadcast, adding that the company had "taken an entire region hostage" by violating the coronavirus rules. Heil claimed that the company not only endangered its own employees, but also "public health". Schools and day-care centres in the area have been ordered to shut and the plant has been closed. 

Clemens Tönnies, CEO, Tönnies, had initially blamed the Eastern European workers for the outbreak. On June 20 he publicly apologised and said he was "fully responsible”, but refused to step down. 

"The exploitation of people from Central and Eastern Europe, which has obviously taken place there, is now becoming a general health risk in the pandemic with considerable damage." Therefore, there has to be a fundamental change in this industry”, said Heil. Meanwhile, Norbert Walter-Borjans, a leader from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has allegedly called for higher meat prices and a debate on distributive justice in Germany. "Meat is produced with a high input of energy and other raw materials. Its value and price are often in stark disproportion", Walter-Borjans told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland newspaper group, adding that the Tönnies case showed "how little attention is paid to the question of how food,  our most important basis of life, is produced”, and that everything is "subordinated to the pursuit of profit and efficiency."

Sources: DW/Le Monde