Fears for the Irish agrifood sector are growing after three meat plants confirmed staff were self-isolating due to fears of Covid-19 outbreaks at their facilities.
A spokesman for Meat Industry Ireland, which represents producers, said production levels and processing throughput has been maintained in the pig meat, lamb and poultry sectors over recent weeks. However, beef throughput was down about 20 per cent on equivalent weeks last year, and 30 per cent compared to early March 2020.
This reduction, he said, “is due to market disruption and the loss of demand from the food service market rather than any limitation on operational capacity”.
The Dawn Meats plant in Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath, said on Friday it had halted operations "out of an abundance of caution" after four confirmed cases of coronavirus.
“Dawn Meats takes the health, safety and welfare of employees, suppliers, contractors and visitors extremely seriously,” it said. “We have implemented a detailed series of measures to manage risks associated with Covid-19, and to maintain social distancing in our facilities in line with procedures recommended by the HSE and other government agencies.
“When we became aware of four confirmed cases of Covid-19 amongst workers in Kilbeggan we decided to defer production in the plant yesterday.”
The company said the cases reflect less than 2 per cent of staff at the plant. “However the decision was taken out an abundance of caution whilst we review the situation. No production was scheduled today or over the Bank Holiday weekend, and no decision has yet been taken with regards to deferring any scheduled activity next week.”
Dawn Meats said the decision would have “no impact” on its ability to supply customers or receive cattle from farmers throughout its network of plants across the country.
The company is a major player in Ireland’s agrifood sector, supplying beef to McDonald’s, while last summer it was one of a number of producers that had its factories blockaded by farmers protesting at the price they were receiving for beef at factory gates.
Concerns were also raised in the Dáil on Thursday night in relation to a number of other plants.
Sinn Féin agriculture spokesman Brian Stanley said he had received a number of complaints from factories of Rosderra Irish Meats.
“They have plants in Edenderry and Roscrea,” he said. “I’ve had complaints from both. The worst scenario is in the case of the Roscrea one where its had an outbreak of Covid. We want to keep the factories open. We’ve been very, very clear about this. That factory, there are around 350 workers on the factory floor. There was up to 140 of those out sick throughout last week and 120 tested positive.”
A spokeswoman for Rosderra Irish Meats Group said co-ordinated testing of all staff at its Roscrea plant has been taking place.
“A number of employees had a positive result from that testing, and they are self-isolating per HSE protocols,” it said. “We have reconfigured the process with the remaining staff who have been tested and are clear of Covid-19, and are continuing with a scaled-down process in the short-term until the staff return.
“We expect those staff will be returning over the next number of weeks having adhered to HSE protocols.”
Separately, Kepak confirmed that a number of employees were self-isolating in line with Government guidance on controlling the spread of Covid-19.
Kepak, which has 11 manufacturing plants across the country and in the UK, confirmed in a statement: “We currently have employees in self-isolation in line with HSE guidelines around Covid-19.”
It said all its sites were fully operational, “albeit at lower levels related to the closure of the food service markets”.
, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed said his department was "aware of six clusters [of Covid-19], five in processing plants and one in a deboning plant".