High stakes for meat processors as Covid-19 impacts on industry

Outbreak of illness could limit capacity in sector still recovering from beef plan conflict

Dawn Meats admitted it had halted operations at one of its plants after four confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Dawn Meats admitted it had halted operations at one of its plants after four confirmed cases of Covid-19.

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In the United States this week, President Donald Trump used laws forged during the Korean war to order meat-processing plants to stay open. US meat processors are a vital part of grocery and supply chains for both internal and export markets, often dominated by a few small players, providing vital employment for rural communities, and buying from hard-pressed farmers.

Sound familiar?

The Irish meat-processing industry began what is likely to be a long-running and fraught crisis-management process as it seeks to control and limit the impact of Covid-19 on factory floors, and therefore on factories. It has not made an auspicious start.

It took the intervention of Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley, on the floor of the Dáil, to bring the situation to light. Rosderra Meats, following his intervention, admitted it had cases of Covid-19 among its workforce – The Irish Times had put queries to the company more than a week previously, which it chose to ignore. He also raised concerning allegations about measures to protect factory workers, which the company has disputed.

Kepak also said it has staff in self-isolation, while Dawn Meats confirmed it had halted operations at one of its plants after four confirmed cases of the disease.

The concern, in Ireland as in the US, is not so much about contamination of products. No reported Covid cases have been linked to this, although consumer confidence is a febrile thing at the moment, and hard-won reputations can be easily lost amid crisis.

The real fear is that an outbreak of illness could limit capacity in the sector, causing order books to go unfilled, or shelves to go unstocked. Still not healed following the corrosive beef plan conflict last year, Ireland’s meat processors – and the farmers they buy from – do not need another crisis. Likewise, easily spooked consumers and panic buying (eggs and flour, anyone?), can create a doom loop reminiscent of those that stalked Irish banks in the last recession. At times of crisis, all a business’s weak points are exposed and put under pressure.

The stakes are high for the meat-processing industry, and it will have to show a commonality of purpose and endeavour that have been recently lacking to get through this latest crisis.

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