Concerns are being raised that meat plants could emerge as a blackspot for Covid-19 infections, with one factory closed and a number understood to have clusters of Covid-19 cases.
The shutdown of plants, as seen in the United States could have a significant impact on the food supply chain and would devastate the incomes of livestock farmers already reeling from the closure of key markets.
Yesterday, the Minister for Agriculture confirmed in the Dail that his Department is aware of six clusters, five in processing plants and one in a deboning plant.
"There has been engagement by those meat plants. HSE staff and officials from my Department have been involved. The feedback to me is that there has been strong co-operation," he said.
He was responding to questioning from Sinn Fein Agriculture Spokesperson Brian Stanley who alleged a significant outbreak in a Rosderra Meats plant in Roscrea Co Tipperary.
Stanley claimed there are "approximately 350 workers on the factory floor there. Up to 140 of them were out sick throughout last week and 120 tested positive for the virus".
A spokeperson for Rosderra Meats said it has implemented "stringent and detailed control measures" to ensure staff safety. It also said it has carried out "co-ordinated testing of all staff at the Roscrea plant. A number of employees have had a positive result from that testing and they are self-isolating."
The statement also said the factory has reconfigured its processing with remaining staff and are continuing a scaled-down process in the short-term.
Deputy Paul Murphy warned meat factories and other workplaces could follow nursing homes in becoming the next big Covid-19 clusters.
Yesterday, Irelands second-largest processor Dawn Meats closed its plant in Kilbeggan when it became aware of 4 confirmed cases of Covid-19 amongst workers.
"The cases reflect less than 2% of staff at the plant, however the decision was taken out an abundance of caution whilst we review the situation. No production was scheduled today or over the Bank Holiday Weekend, and no decision has yet been taken with regards to deferring any scheduled activity next week.
"The decision will have no impact on our ability to supply customers or receive cattle from farmers throughout our network of plants in the country," the company said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Kepak which has a number of processing locations nationwide confirmed it currently has employees in self-isolation in line with HSE guidelines around Covid-19, but said all its sites are fully operational albeit at lower levels related to the closure of the foodservice markets.
"All Kepak sites have implemented a wide and comprehensive range of Covid-19 control measures to protect staff, suppliers and service providers," it said.
Earlier this week, SIPTU and the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) called on the Health and Safety Authority (HAS) to immediately inspect the Liffey Meats facility in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan, to ensure its compliance with Covid-19 precautions after receiving no response from the company to demands regarding Covid-19 protocols.
The groups said they had been receiving calls from SIPTU members, many of whom are migrant workers concerned about their health and safety in the plant.
However, SIPTU Manufacturing Division Organiser Greg Ennis said he did not put a lot of store in social media posts relating to the company in recent days.
In a statement, Liffey Meats said the health and wellbeing of its employees and everyone entering our plants is its priority.
"We have an experienced Covid-19 dedicated team, who have been fully engaged with the HSE from the start, coordinating our response at our plants.
"From the outset, our team has overseen the implementation of a full set of enhanced safety procedures across all of our plants, which also included adopting all the Government and HSE recommended guidelines. These steps must be adhered to by everyone entering and leaving the plants, including all employees, suppliers and farmers. We are in ongoing contact with the HSE, who have confirmed that they are very satisfied with all the measures we have in place.
“We will continue to monitor the situation and do all we can to minimise the spread of this virus, including updating our guidelines as required, in order to protect our employees, their families and members of our wider community”.
Ennis welcomed this assurance by the company and said he would monitoring the situation across the sector to make sure union members, their families and the wider community is protected.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday ordered meat-processing plants to stay open to protect the food supply in the United States, despite concerns about coronavirus outbreaks, drawing a backlash from unions that said at-risk workers required more protection.
With concerns about food shortages and supply chain disruptions, Trump issued an executive order using the Defense Production Act to mandate that the plants continue to function.
The world's biggest meat companies, including Smithfield Foods Inc, Cargill Inc, JBS USA and Tyson, have halted operations at about 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America as workers fall ill, stoking global fears of a meat shortage.
The order is designed in part to give companies legal cover with more liability protection in case employees catch the virus as a result of having to go to work.
John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, said on Sunday that the food supply chain was "breaking" and warned of the potential for meat shortages.