If meat plants had been closed during the Covid-19 pandemic it could have resulted in food shortages and would have collapsed the agricultural economy, the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has been told.
Department of Agriculture secretary general Brendan Gleeson also told the committee that transmission of the virus in food production plants is at a lower rate than in the wider community and outlined how rapid antigen testing is being rolled out to the meat plant sector.
There has been concern over the spread of Covid-19 in meat plants amid the pandemic, and three counties – Offaly, Laois and Kildare – were placed under higher restrictions last summer when outbreaks at meat factories led to a surge in cases there.
Fianna Fáil TD Cormac Devlin asked Mr Gleeson about the issue at a PAC meeting on Tuesday. Mr Gleeson said that the Department of Agriculture is working with the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) in carrying out Covid-19 inspections of meat plants and he said there has been a "reasonably high level of compliance".
He said the department has also facilitated serial Covid-19 testing at the meat plants.
Mr Gleeson said the latest figure he has for tests is 86,541 completed in 88 food production facilities, with 526 cases detected in all.
He said the last round of testing involved 11,000 swabs taken in 44 facilities, and the subsequent positivity rate of 0.35 per cent is “something below the national positivity rate”.
He said the lower rate is “certainly not something we can take for granted” and that the department has run a pilot for the deployment of rapid antigen testing.
TDs were told that meat plants are the “perfect environment” for running these kinds of pilot tests because the workers are also being tested through the PCR method.
Antigen tests that aim to detect Covid-19 while a person is infectious are considered less reliable than PCR tests for the disease.
Mr Gleeson said that antigen tests are being rolled out to the meat plant industry now and that between 2,500 and 3,000 such tests have been done.
He said meat plant inspections are ongoing.
Mr Gleeson added: “It was critically important to keep these facilities open because without them there could have been food shortages . . . and the agricultural economy would have collapsed.”
He said the protection of staff and the reputation of the sector was also “really important”.
He also told the PAC: “The reality is that as long as there’s infection in the community there’s the possibility of this disease getting into meat plants.”
He said that they are “high-risk environments”, particularly sections of the plants that are temperature-controlled due to the control of air into and out of these areas and the potential for the virus to build up there over the day.
Mr Devlin said it was “reassuring to know” that inspections are ongoing.