Scientists have warned that a chilled climate with no sunlight can allow coronavirus to thrive in meat processing plants as a third factory is shutdown in the UK – after outbreaks in Germany and the US.
Mobile testing tents have been set up outside Kober Ltd near Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, today which supplies supermarket giant Asda with bacon rashers and joints, after nearly 100 workers fell ill.
It follows outbreaks at two food processing plants in Wales, with 58 cases confirmed at the 2 Sisters chicken factory in Llangefni on Anglesey, and a further 38 at Rowan Foods, which makes produce for supermarkets across the UK.
There have been similar issues in meat processing plants in the US, with more than half of Covid-19 hotspots thought to be linked to meat processing plants.
In Germany 657 workers have been infected with coronavirus at the Toennies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck.
All 6400 employees of the plant and their close contacts are now in quarantine after the plant was closed just hours after the news at 2pm on Wednesday.
Experts believe the reason for the outbreaks is that the virus thrives in the cold, damp conditions and social distancing measures are much harder to implement in factory-style settings.
Prof Calum Semple, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Liverpool, has said the plants can be ‘a perfect environment for the virus to persist on surfaces and in the air’.
And Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at University of East Anglia told MailOnline ‘it’s not immediately obvious’ why meat packing plants have been suffering outbreaks, but suggested it could be due to the difficulty of social distancing in the facilities.
An outbreak was reported at the Kober Ltd factory near Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire
Kober Ltd in Cleckheaton near Bradford where mobile testing tents have been set up after Health secretary Matt Hancock announced an outbreak of Covid 19 in todays Downing Street briefing
A chicken factory, above, that supplies meat to KFC and M&S has shut down for two weeks after 58 staff tested positive for coronavirus in a major outbreak
He said: ‘I think it’s unlikely the virus got into the factories due to the meat. The more likely explanation is that it got in via one of the workers who was infected. One possible reason could be seeing outbreaks in these facilities is the jobs are indoors and it is more difficult to social distance. It may also be the case that it is not as easy to utilise masks or PPE.’
Professor Hunter added there was ‘no current evidence’ to show the virus was ‘food-borne’.
‘Even if it was on food it wouldn’t survive on food above 60 degrees. So if you do have contaminated food, by the time it hits your plate the virus would be mostly dead.’
It is not known how many staff at Kober tested positive for Covid-19 or if there have been any hospitalisations or deaths as a result.
Why meat factories are becoming a hotbed for coronavirus outbreaks
The virus thrives in cold, damp and indoor environments, particularly on cool surfaces.
The lack of a breeze or ultraviolet light from the sun means the moisture remains and can’t be killed off inside food processing plants.
Furthermore, social distancing is particularly difficult in workplaces with a busy production line meaning the virus is likely to spread more easily.
Loud machinery also forces people to raise their voices and researchers say situations where people have to shout result in an increased risk of projecting the virus to others.
It’s not just in the UK where a trend has been seen, either, after hundreds tested positive in a Berlin slaughterhouse, while a wet market in Wuhan is believed to have been at the heart of a huge number of infections early on in the crisis.
A spokesperson for Asda and Kober said: ‘As soon as we became aware that some colleagues at our Kober site may have Covid-19, we responded swiftly and worked collaboratively with the local authority and Public Health England to test all colleagues.
‘We have existing strict safety measures in place on the site, however as a precautionary measure we have voluntarily closed the site to protect colleagues and prevent any further transmission.
‘Colleagues who need to self-isolate will receive full pay and we aim to reopen the facility early next week. We’re grateful to the Kirklees Council and Public Health England for their support through this process.’
The local outbreak was confirmed last night by Matt Hancock, after public health chiefs said they were in the dark over ‘local lockdown’ policies.
The Health Secretary said: ‘The system is already up and running. In fact, I chaired a meeting this morning of our local action committee, which is the formal process through which we make these decisions, working with local leaders, for instance, in Kirklees.
‘And the local director of public health and the council are heavily involved in the response.’
However, Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin criticised the way the news was revealed as ‘thoughtless, sloppy and unhelpful’.
She added: ‘No one in Kirklees should be concerned. Having spoken to the council they’ve acted very swiftly, I’m proud of them but I’m really frustrated Matt Hancock took it on himself to announce it like that.’
Director of public health at Kirklees Council, Rachel Spencer-Henshall, said: ‘We were made aware of a number of positive cases of COVID-19 at a workplace in Kirklees.
‘We have been providing support and advice to both the management and employees in order to minimise any further transmission.’
News of the outbreak comes two months after a Twitter user shared a photo of workers at the plant during a shift change, which showed groups congregating near parked cars appearing to be less than two metres apart.
Elsewhere, there are fresh fears in Leicester after it emerged around a quarter of its confirmed cases were reported in the last fortnight.
A further 38 cases have been found at Rowan Foods, which makes produce for supermarkets across the UK
A security guard at Kober meat processing plant in Cleckheaton, that has been confirmed as the location of a localised coronavirus outbreak, in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire
Yesterday it emerged that the 2 Sisters Food Group, whose factory supplies meat to KFC and M&S has shut down for two weeks after staff tested positive.
The company announced it was ‘doing the right thing’ and would cease work on site for 14 days with immediate effect.
Public Health Wales confirmed that 58 cases of Covid-19 have been identified at the factory in Llangefni, North Wales.
Earlier this week unions said they were aware of 13 cases among staff at the factory, with 110 people self-isolating as a precaution, while council chiefs said efforts to tackle the cluster were being treated as a priority.
In a statement, the firm said: ‘The health, safety and well-being of our colleagues is ultimately the thing that matters most at our business. We are a responsible company with people at its core. Without our people we are nothing.
‘Therefore in light of the current Covid-19 cases at our Llangefni site, we have decided to take the necessary action to clearly demonstrate how seriously we take this issue by doing the right thing.
‘Doing the right thing means from today we will temporarily suspend production at our Llangefni site with immediate effect for a period of 14 days.
‘We will not tolerate any unnecessary risks – however small – for our existing loyal workforce at the facility.
‘We have worked in close collaboration in the past week with Public Health Wales, Anglesey Council, the Health & Safety Executive, the FSA (Food Standards Agency) and the Unite union who have all offered great advice, scientific knowledge and support, and we thank them for their help and guidance which has informed this decision.
‘Our sole focus now is to ensure we support all our colleagues through this time and look forward to operating safely and securely in 14 days’ time.’
The company said the first reported positive case at the plant was on May 28 and that a full ‘safe ways of working’ action plan had been in place since early March.
The meat processing plant supplies supermarket giant Asda with bacon rashers and joints
Plaid Cymru’s Rhun ap Iorwerth posted on Twitter: ‘Spoken with 2 Sisters management this morning – decision taken late last night to suspend operations at the chicken processing plant in Llangefni following significant Covid-19 outbreak.
‘It’s the correct decision to safeguard staff and the public.’
On whether staff have been told to self-isolate, he added: ‘I think that has to happen to halt this outbreak.
‘The contact tracing team on Anglesey Council will be making it a priority to break chains of transmission, and I’ll be seeking updates on that.’
Dr Christopher Johnson, Consultant in Health Protection for Public Health Wales, said: ‘Public Health Wales can confirm that employees and contractors of the 2 Sisters poultry processing plant in Llangefni have been notified that they are Coronavirus contacts, and we are asking them to self-isolate for 14 days to help protect population health.
2 Sisters Food Group is one of the largest food producers in the UK, with customers such as supermarkets and other brands (a supermarket aisle with rows of chicken, file photo)
‘We are working in close collaboration with the employer, Anglesey and Gwynedd Councils, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board and other partners, and our priority is to bring this outbreak to a swift conclusion.’
He added: ‘We would remind all members of the public that they have a vital role in preventing the spread of Coronavirus, to help keep Wales safe.
‘They can do this by always observing social distancing guidelines – that’s staying two metres away from others – washing hands regularly, and working from home if they can.
‘If they are meeting members of one other household, as permitted by the guidelines, they must stay outdoors and stay local.’
Production at the factory, where 560 people are employed, will be transferred to other company locations until July 2.
2 Sisters Food Group is one of the largest food producers in the UK, with brands including Fox’s Biscuits and Holland’s Pies, and customers such as supermarkets, KFC and Marks & Spencer.
The Llangefni site does not supply retail or branded food service customers, said the company.
Kober is the second Yorkshire meat factory to confirm a coronavirus outbreak.
Cranswick Convenience Foods in Wombwell, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, which also processes bacon, had nine confirmed cases in the spring.
Three workers died and all but two were hospitalised.