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Why has the food industry been so vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19?

COVID-19 and the Meat Industry

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK at the beginning of the year, the food industry was affected more than most. Initially with the supply chain under enormous pressure to respond to erratic demand and now a seemingly disproportionate number of food processing workers are testing positive causing significant disruption to businesses. 

Week on week we hear about another food company having to deal with an outbreak. Despite advance warnings from the workers trade union Unite that the sector was particularly vulnerable, meat processing plants and abattoirs have been hit particularly hard.  In June, Europe’s largest meat-processing plant, located in Germany, had a mass coronavirus outbreak that infected 1,500 of its workers and resulted in around 7,000 people in the North Rhine-Westphalia region being sent into quarantine.  Across the US, one of its largest coronavirus outbreaks happened at a meat processing plant. In July, the US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that among 23 states reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in meat and poultry processing facilities, 16,233 cases in 239 facilities occurred, including 86 COVID-19 related deaths. 

Why? 

Many food factories, and in particular meat and poultry processing plants could be viewed as providing the ‘the perfect storm’ of environmental conditions for the spread of coronavirus:

  1. Meat, poultry and many other food processing sites are necessarily cold and damp environments, providing the ideal conditions for the virus to settle, linger, stay viable and spread. 
  2. Employees often need to work in close proximity where the virus can be more easily shared by touching infected surfaces or through inhaled droplets.
  3. Refrigeration systems at processing sites can be very noisy and require people to talk more loudly or shout which can increase the spread of infected droplets. 
  4. Enclosed sites with few windows are common for many food processing factories and minimal natural daylight is also thought to help the virus survive for longer.
  5. At sites where workers are also living closely together in nearby accommodation as part of their contract, and in some cases not entitled to sick pay, this can also encourage the virus to spread more easily. In these circumstances, workers are often car sharing which has also been found to compound the risk and spread of infection. 

So, what is being done about it?

The government has issued guidelines for food manufacturers and processors on how to adapt their operations during the pandemic.  This includes advice on performing risk assessments, managing stock levels, cleaning machinery and staff training. 

PPE is usually commonplace in the food industry to ensure foods are not contaminated by workers; however, the guidance offers additional advice on the wearing gloves, face coverings frequent hand cleansing and social distancing. 

While this is all valuable guidance for minimising the spread of the virus within a food plant, what if we could try and make sure that the virus does not enter the site in the first place?

Mandatory hand sanitisation at all points of entry into the building is one effective way to help achieve this. Installation of quality sanitisation stations linked to building entry systems will ensure the same high standard of hand cleansing. While this doesn’t eliminate viral spread through breathing it will have an enormous impact on stopping the spread of viruses through touch.  

The full range of Steriloc hand sanitisation units can be seamlessly integrated with the majority of building access control systems including swipe, fingerprint, facial recognition, at gates, doors or turnstiles.