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Poultry sector defends its record over coronavirus

Chicken on a slaughterline

THE BRITISH POULTRY COUNCIL (BPC) has launched a defence of the sector, saying media portrayals of meat processing sites as coronavirus epicentres are “unacceptable”.

It comes as unprecedented scrutiny was placed on the meat processing sector at the final covid-19 press conference on 23 June, hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

See also: UK broiler market down 1.5m chicks a week in May

At it, a member of the public asked about steps being taken to protect the public from “contaminated meat”, in light of outbreaks in food businesses across the UK and beyond.

Perhaps the most widely publicised of these outbreaks in the UK is at 2 Sisters’ poultry processing plant in Llangefni, on Anglesey, North Wales.

As of 24 June, Public Health Wales has confirmed 200 positive tests linked to workers at the site, out of a total of 560 workers. The plant was temporarily closed last week by 2 Sisters.

Meatpacking plants

At the Downing Street press conference chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance highlighted that the Food Standards Agency has said the risk of meat being contaminated with coronavirus was very low.

But he added the environment in which it was processed was potentially at higher risk than other workplaces.

“They are cold, and we know the virus prefers it in the cold, there’s often difficulty in keeping people physically separated,” he said.

Difficult environment

“They are often loud, so there are often people speaking quite loudly, and there are places people huddle to have coffee and so on.”

“So, the environment is quite a difficult one in terms of the risk.”

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty added that outbreaks in meatpacking plants and abattoirs around the world indicated that mitigations in such premises would have to be taken “particularly seriously”.

British Poultry Council

Chief executive of the BPC Richard Griffiths said the sector was doing “all it could” to manage the risk to employees.

Average staff absence across member companies had been lower than 5%, according to Mr Griffiths, and that figure covered cases of Covid-19, people shielding, carers and routine absences.

In addition, they had invested in new infrastructure and processes to protect workers, Mr Griffiths added.

Unfair portrayal

Where the production environment makes keeping a 2m distance impossible, Perspex screens, enhanced PPE and managing shift patterns had been implemented.

In a statement, Mr Griffiths said: “Some of the recent outbreaks of COVID-19 in meat plants clearly demonstrate that no amount of preparation and vigilance can guarantee complete protection against COVID-19.

“Also, it’s important to understand that every business is limited to what it can control outside the workplace.

“Unfair portrayal of meat processing sites as virus epicentres is unacceptable, and we look forward to working closely with the Government to help eradicate these negative stereotypes and raise awareness about the steps taken by the poultry meat industry to protect our people.”