Thursday, 21 May 2020
Outbreaks of Covid-19 in Meat Processing Plants: Statements
Michael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
Since the start of this pandemic, the protection of public health has been the Government's overriding priority. The Government categorised farming and food production as essential services under the Covid-19 regulations. Irish food supply chains have continued to operate effectively to ensure the security of supply of safe healthy Irish food for consumers at home and abroad.
In respect of Covid-19 and meat plants, as in all other aspects of the pandemic, we must all listen to the public health experts and adhere strictly to their recommendations. We are all part of the whole-of-government response to Covid-19 and in this instance are focused on ensuring the health and safety of all workers, including staff from my Department in meat plants. Since the start of the pandemic, my Department officials and I have had regular meetings with meat industry representatives. At all times we have emphasised that their priority must be safeguarding human health and following HSE guidelines at all levels of operation. Meat industry representatives have outlined to my Department the type of measures put in place in plants, including, for example, the extension of operating hours, reduced throughput rates at individual plants, the provision of additional PPE, the installation of Perspex screens, temperature checks on entry and the provision of additional facilities to support physical distancing measures. Because meat plants remained open as an essential part of the food chain, these measures were put in place in an evolving situation with new information and advice emerging on an ongoing basis.
When a cluster of cases of Covid-19 does arise in a meat plant, as with clusters arising in any workplace setting, the matter is dealt with by a HSE-led local outbreak control team. The control team then works in close co-ordination with local plant management to put in place measures to contain the outbreak. I understand that there has been good and constructive engagement between meat plant management and the HSE local control team in these cases. As the number of clusters arising in meat plants increased, a national outbreak control team reporting through the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, was established. The group's remit is to oversee and co-ordinate the approach to the prevention and management of the Covid-19 outbreaks in meat plants in Ireland. The group is chaired by the HSE, with a range of participants, including my Department. The first output from the group was a guidance document which issued to all meat processing facilities last Friday, 15 May. This document has been published on the websites of the HPSC and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It provides guidance on the necessary facilities, processes and management required to minimise the risk of Covid-19 for all workers in meat plants. Many of the specific recommendations may already be in place in meat plants. Nonetheless, I am pleased to see detailed guidance specifically tailored to the meat industry. This guidance is detailed; it covers, inter alia, infection prevention and control measures to prevent cases and control outbreaks, screening processes on entry to the workplace, hand-washing facilities, workstation requirements and canteen facilities, steps to be taken when an individual case is suspected or confirmed, additional steps to be taken when an outbreak has occurred and engagement and communication with staff.
To be clear, my Department's statutory responsibility in the context of meat plants is to ensure that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine-approved meat plants operate in compliance with the European Union's food hygiene legislation and animal health and welfare standards. Approximately 250 veterinary and technical staff from my Department are routinely involved in supervising, regulating and controlling these standards at Department-approved meat plants. A total of 149 meat premises are approved by my Department, with specific approvals for activities including slaughtering, deboning and-or cold storage of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. Of these, the Department has a permanent presence at the 49 premises which slaughter animals and carries out risk-based inspections and controls at the remaining approved meat premises.
As we know, in the context of the pandemic, primary responsibility for public health policy and implementation rests with the Department of Health and the HSE. Responsibility for health and safety in the workplace rests with the Health and Safety Authority under the auspices of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. As part of the whole-of-government response to the pandemic, my Department will continue to contribute to the HSE-chaired national outbreak control team and will provide any support required to the HSE at local and national level. My Department has assisted in the dissemination of the HSE guidance to the Department-approved meat plants. In addition, my Department has sought an update from plant management on the measures which have been put in place in each plant to implement these guidelines. To this end, along with the statutory role in respect of food safety, animal welfare and animal health, my Department will support the HSE and the Health and Safety Authority in monitoring the effective implementation of the guidance in Department-approved meat plants.
I reiterate that the protection of public health must be our overriding concern, that is, the health of the workers within the factories, including my own staff, the health of the wider communities in which the workers reside, and the health of the general population. My key message to the industry and to all stakeholders in the agrifood sector is that we must maintain our vigilance, and as more sectors return to work and as life takes on some semblance of normality, all parties must continue to implement and adhere to the public health guidelines for the benefit of all.