Labour calls for urgent investigation into cause of coronavirus outbreaks in meat processing factories

Labour has demanded an urgent investigation into coronavirus outbreaks in meat processing plants after a swathe of examples in Yorkshire and further afield.

Hundreds of workers have been reported to have tested positive at processing and packing plants, contributing to coronavirus hotspots in West Yorkshire, as well as in Cambridgeshire and Wales.

An outbreak at Kober Ltd in Cleckheaton prompted fears of a local lockdown in Bradford and West Yorkshire.

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While three people have died after an outbreak at Cranswick Foods in Wombwell, near Barnsley.

Labours shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard. Photo: PALabours shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard. Photo: PA
Labours shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard. Photo: PA

In Wales, there have been clusters this month at the Two Sisters chicken factory in Anglesey, which has 58 cases, and Rowan Foods in Wrexham.

Major outbreaks have also been reported at meat packing plants all over the world. Ireland has had 16 clusters linked to meat factories, with over 800 workers infected and 16 hospitalised.

The Food Standards Agency has said it is very unlikely that coronavirus can be caught from food or packaging, but they have been working with the meat industry to encourage preventative measures such as social distancing.

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And Public Health England is commissioning research into the causes of outbreaks.

But Labour’s shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard has written to the government calling for an urgent investigation in the settings.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the letter had been received and environment secretary George Eustice would respond in due course.

In the letter Mr Pollard said: “We have been seeing far too many recent reports of serious outbreaks of Covid-19 amongst workers in meat plants.”

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And he noted that in the USA in April and May, there were nearly 100 deaths among more than 17,000 workers testing positive for coronavirus at various meat and poultry processing facilities.

He said: “I hope you would agree that we do not want to see outbreaks of that size and severity anywhere in the UK.

“To ensure this does not happen here and to help maintain the good name of responsible food businesses, the Government must in my view take more urgent and robust action to minimize further risks to workers’ health.”

The Welsh Government has already ordered a rapid review and risk assessment of food businesses.

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Mr Pollard said: “There are thousands of people working in chilled and moist workplaces like meat packing factories throughout the country. The large number of Covid-19 outbreaks should have prompted a stronger response from the Government to understand why these plants are most affected and what can be done to slow the spread of the virus in food factories.”

Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin was among the first to call for an inquiry, and Barnsley East MP Stephanie Peacock and Wentworth and Dearne MP John Healey have also raised concerns about the Health and Safety Executive’s role in ensuring food plants are safe.

Ms Brabin raised the need for an investigation with the Prime Minister at Prime Ministers’ Question last month following the outbreak at a factory in Cleckheaton in her constituency.

Boris Johnson said: “We will certainly look into what is happening to meat processing, and [Ms Brabin] is right to draw attention to that phenomenon.

“We have seen it in Anglesey and in Germany. We need to get to the bottom of what is happening.”