Tönnies under pressure More than 1300 coronavirus cases in meat factory

Gütersloh/Berlin · The coronavirus outbreak, with more than 1300 infected people in a meat factory, poses a challenge to NRW Minister President Laschet. The authorities are trying to break the chain of infection. The entrepreneur Clemens Tönnies is under criticism.

 Soldiers of the Bundeswehr help with a mass coronavirus screening on the premises of the Tönnies company.

Soldiers of the Bundeswehr help with a mass coronavirus screening on the premises of the Tönnies company.

Foto: dpa/Deeke

After the corona outbreak with more than 1300 infected people in a factory of the Tönnies meat company, the district of Gütersloh is spared drastic restrictions in everyday life for the time being.

After a crisis meeting, however, North Rhine-Westphalia's Minister President Armin Laschet made it clear that a regional lockdown was still an option to bring the infections under control. Politicians and consumer protection groups criticise the entrepreneur Clemens Tönnies as well as the industry as a whole with the accusation of practising an unhealthy price war for meat at the expense of employees, farmers and animal welfare.

There is "an enormous pandemic risk", warned Laschet on Sunday in Gütersloh. However, he added that the infection could be localised at the company, and there was no chain of infection into the rest of the population in the region. His cabinet had met for a crisis meeting.

SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach thinks the decision is wrong. “The outbreak remained undiscovered for so long that it could long ago have spread to the rest of the population,” he tweeted.

The number of infected people at the factory in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck had risen to 1,331 by Sunday, according to the district. The tests on the company's premises were completed on Saturday, it was said. A total of 6,139 tests had been carried out, 5,899 test results were initially available, and 4,568 employees had not been infected with the virus.

Currently, 21 Covid-19 patients are being treated in the four hospitals in the district, six of whom are in intensive care and two of these need to be on ventilators. Five out of the six are Tönnies employees, according to available information.

Laschet warned Tönnies employees from other countries against a hasty departure to their home country and promised the “best possible medical treatment” in Germany. He said that as many interpreters as possible would be sent to the workers' accommodation. The problem, he said, was that they were spread over 1,300 properties. Three hundred police units supported the public order offices in enforcing the quarantine of all approximately 6,500 employees.

The head of government, as well as representatives of the embassies of Romania, Poland and Bulgaria, attended a meeting of the crisis management team in the Gütersloh district.

Politicians see a need for cross-party action. “Meat is too cheap,” Federal Minister of Agriculture Julia Klöckner (CDU) told the German Press Agency. She is therefore now also advocating an animal welfare levy that could be added to meat, sausages and other products. “Meat should not become a luxury product for the rich. But also not be cheap quality.“

Green Party leader Robert Habeck told the dpa: “We must move towards animal husbandry that is oriented towards animal welfare and not just towards dumping prices and competition logic."

"A higher price through a new meat tax or animal welfare levy unfortunately does not guarantee better quality, higher animal welfare or work safety in slaughterhouses", the head of the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv), Klaus Müller, told the “Rheinische Post”.

NRW Minister President Laschet addressed the company directly. “We will also take Mr Tönnies at his word that the state of affairs cannot continue as before. We need new rules, new conditions – and that is also what we expect from the company”, said Laschet.

Klöckner criticised the centralisation of the slaughter industry. “As you can see, size also has a negative price.” Farmers should be able to live from their work, and be able to convert stables.

Georg Nüßlein (CSU), vice party leader of the CDU/CSU, demanded an end to price advertising for meat. The weekly price war of supermarkets was “indecent”. SPD agricultural politician Rainer Spiering told the dpa: “The fact that meat is being sold off dirt cheap in this way has to do with selling off workers cheap”.

(Original text; Martin Romanczyk, dpa, translation John Chandler)

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