Gütersloh/Rheda-Wiedenbrück In Gütersloh in the north-east of North Rhine-Westphalia, authorities are having to contain a huge outbreak of coronavirus at a slaughterhouse. Hundreds are infected at the meat plant Tönnies.
Schools and daycare centers in Gütersloh closed as of Thursday, in response to a COVID-19 outbreak resulting in hundreds of infected people at the Tönnies meat company in Rheda-Wiedenbrück.
Because of the closings, only emergency childcare will be offered up until the North Rhine-Westphalian summer holidays begin on June 26. With this measure, local and state government authorities hope to prevent the virus from spreading.
At this time, the authorities are assuming that this is a 'local event’, only affecting slaughterhouse workers. District Administrator Sven-Georg Adenauer (CDU) said the move was a "precautionary measure” and that they did not want a general lockdown. Around 362,000 people live in the Gütersloh area in eastern Westphalia.
On Wednesday, Germany's market leader in the processing of pork products reported a significant increase in the number of infected persons among the workforce. By evening, 657 employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. District Administrator Adenauer ordered 7,000 people to go into quarantine, including the employees at the factory, the infected persons and their direct contact persons.
The Tönnies company believes that employees returning from home leave in Eastern Europe may have brought the virus with them. Another factor contributing to the spread is the cold temperatures in the processing areas.
Reactions from critics in the meat industry were prompt: the leader of the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag, Anton Hofreiter, called the conditions untenable: "The health of the employees is being put at risk for the profits of the meat barons.” Vice-chair of the SPD parliamentary group, Katja Mas said that the "business model and the incidence of infection are connected”. SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach told the newspapers of the Funke Media Group (Thursday): "The hygiene concept must have failed completely.”
Greenpeace also criticized that industry giants such as Tönnies were accepting massive risks of infection and endangering the entire region. "Politicians misunderstand the dimension of the problem. The production of cheap meat only works at the expense of health, animals and the environment," the nature conservation organization said.
Ralph Brinkhaus, the head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group who represents Gütersloh in the federal parliament, told the newspaper "Westfalen-Blatt" (Thursday) that the causes of the infection must be clarified. Maintaining the status quo with a promise that everything will be done better in the future at Tönnies is not enough for the employees or the people who live in Gütersloh, expressed the CDU politician.
Thuringia's Minister President Bodo Ramelow (Left party) said on Wednesday, after a meeting of the heads of state governments with Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), that one must "finally talk about the working and living conditions of these people". "And I think we must put a stop to these working and living conditions, because neither the employees nor the animals deserve it, nor do we as consumers.”
North Rhine-Westphalia's Minister of Health, Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU), announced that all employees in slaughterhouses throughout NRW would be tested again to determine whether the outbreak was an exception or not. In recent weeks, outbreaks of the coronavirus occurred at several locations in Germany, including Tönnies competitor Westfleisch in the Coesfeld area.