VICTORIAN sheep meat processor, the Australian Lamb Company, has been forced to close for at least two weeks as testing confirms 12 COVID-19 positive cases among employees.
And Warrnambool-based beef and sheeepmeat processor Midfield Meat International has also closed as a precaution, despite having no positive COVID-19 cases, after a meat inspector connected with the Colac outbreak briefly worked at its plant.
An ALC spokesperson said on Friday the company had confirmed that an ALC contractor employed at its Colac processing facility was in self-isolation following a positive result from a COVID-19 test performed the previous Friday.
“Further testing of ALC employees conducted by local health authorities has now confirmed an additional eight (8) positive results.
“All workers employed at the site have been instructed to quarantine and we continue to work with health authorities to finalise testing,” the spokesperson said.
“In line with a direction from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, we are now closing our operations for at least 14 days.
“We will continue to work with health authorities to ensure we take all necessary steps to reduce the risk of further transmission,” the ALC spokesperson said.
ALC’s closure follows the closure of the JBS Australia abattoir at Brooklyn and the Tottenham meat packer Somerville Retail Services in the past fortnight after outbreaks of COVID-19. All the closed plants are Coles suppliers, raising concerns about future supermarket retail meat supplies. Up to yesterday, there had been 57 confirmed cases connected with Somerville Retail Services and 36 related to JBS Brooklyn.
A Coles spokesperson said a number of Victorian food suppliers were experiencing temporary disruption to their operations following positive COVID-19 cases among their workers.
“Where necessary, Coles has made alternative sourcing arrangements so we can continue to provide the food and groceries our customers need.”
No positive case, but Midfield closes for COVID-19 testing
Midfield general manager Dean McKenna said an inspector who connected with the ALC plant at Colac worked at the Warrnambool site on Tuesday last week while not exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
“He developed symptoms late last week, which I believe was around Friday,” he said.
Mr McKenna said after confirming that the man’s wife, who also worked at the ALC, and daughter, had tested positive for COVID-19, and finding out Sunday evening that the inspector’s test result was positive, he escalated his company’s precautions.
Due to difficulties in accurately contract tracing where the inspector had been in the Warrnambool plant, Mr McKenna decided last night to shut all operations down until everybody was tested – about 1000 workers – and the results are known, “rather than it be another Cedar Meats”.
The Cedar Meats plant in west Melbourne was the site of Australia’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak in the red meat sector earlier this year, with 111 cases.
“We have not had a positive result come back and we’ve taken this proactive step so that hopefully we don’t have one, for the safety of the employees, their families and the community at large,” Mr McKenna said.
“They are doing the testing now, the results will be back hopefully within 24 hours and if there is an issue we will address that there and then.
“If there are no issues we will be back processing Wednesday or Thursday,” he said.
Mr McKenna said all Midfield staff were tested for COVID-19 as a precaution about seven weeks ago and he has been trying to get the Department of Health and Human Services to do further on-site testing since then.
“They refused to do it because no-one was symptomatic.”
Mr McKenna said the company’s employees had also been wearing masks for the past seven weeks and the plant has been deep-cleaned daily for the past eight weeks.
Midfield’s Warrnambool Meat Barn business is remaining open as there has been no positive COVID-19 tests recorded.
Meat processing “very challenging” – Andrews
In announcing 275 new COVID-19 cases in the state this morning, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said abattoirs and meat processing, “as well as a number of other settings, are very challenging.”
“That’s why there are protocols in place, that’s why I think every abattoir across the state is using their best endeavours, and I am very grateful for them, to do everything they can to try to stop the spread of the virus,” he said.
“When people are working in colder temperatures and people are working quite close to each other by nature of the work, it can be very very challenging.
“I think that there is a pretty good understanding of the fact that abattoirs, meat processing centres, large cool store-type arrangements are particularly high risk,” he said.
“There is a well-understood and quite a detailed checklist if you like; there are many rules that are in place, they are now operating as normal.
“They’ve certainly many many changes and I am grateful to everybody in that sector – not just employers, but obviously workers also,” Mr Andrews said.
“I’ve got no advice or any sense that there needs to be a change made there, but again, if Brett (chief health officer Brett Sutton), or at a national level or even at a global level, because we’ve seen some very very significant outbreaks in other parts of the world, thousands of cases.
“If there was deemed a better protocol or a different way of doing things then I’m sure we would be open to that,” he said.
“But we would work with industry to do that, we wouldn’t want to change the rules overnight or anything like that when it came to such a significant industry.”
He said by and large, in “the vast majority of these settings” employers and workers are taking the pandemic very seriously.