A professor has suggested that migrant workers' lifestyles - where they often live in cramped shared accommodation so they can send money home - could be playing a significant role in slaughterhouses being COVID-19 hotspots.
Chris Elliott, Professor of Food Safety at Queen's University Belfast and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security, discussed the issue in a New Food Magazine article titled Why are meat factories a coronavirus hotspot?.
Professor Elliot noted that outbreaks have occurred in countries including the U.K, Spain, The Netherlands, Ireland, France, and Germany.
He cited Germany as having the most 'severe' issues, with around 4,000 cases being reported so far.
According to reports, more than 1,500 workers - most of whom are from Romania and Bulgaria - were infected at a single site in Gütersloh. As a result, thousands of local residents were told to self-isolate after coming into contact with infected people, and local authorities closed schools and childcare facilities in the local region for the remainder of June, in a bid to clampdown on the spread of the disease.
According to Prof. Elliot, while cases like these are extreme: "It is important to note, however, that many meat plants across the UK and, indeed, Europe have reported very few issues if any, and it is very much business as normal or at least the 'new normal'."
Prof. Elliot described the issue as 'multifactorial' and said several factors should be considered - including the working environment, which he described as 'cold, damp and noisy...labor-intensive, with many workers on production lines in close contact with one another' - all of which makes the facilities high risk. He adds that mitigating measures were put in place at the outset of the pandemic, and for many operations 'they have been successful'.
Additional risk factors could come via the workforce, he said: "The meat industry (and many other food sectors in Europe) relies heavily on migrant workers. In the case of the UK, English is not their first language and often their knowledge of English is very limited. These workers live together, often in quite crowed accommodation to keep costs to a minimum so they can send as much money home as possible. They travel to and from work together, eat together, socialise together, and get a lot of their information from news media from their home countries and families.
"All of these can be considered as 'additional risk factors' and no magic bullets are available to alleviate risk, but then again, many of the meat plants across Europe operate with migrant workers and have done so with no indications of major breakdowns."
The issue goes beyond Europe: a top analyst branded U.S. meatpacking facilities 'COVID-19 hotpots' back in May, as infection levels within the facilities have outpaced the rest of the country.
According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, which has been compiling data of the positive cases and deaths, as of June 25, there have been at least 25,700 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 243 plants in 33 states, and at least 95 reported worker deaths at 39 plants in 24 states.
Nonprofit organization the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, which promotes a plant-based diet for health, has also looked at potential reasons for outbreaks.
It said: "With workers lined up in close proximity, viruses are easily spread within the slaughterhouse environment. Although studies show that infectious viruses easily survive during refrigeration and freezing, meat companies do not routinely test the extent to which meat products are contaminated with the virus."