444 cases of Covid-19 were detected in food processing plants between January 11 and February 5, according to Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue.

These figures related to ‘cycle 5’ of serial food processor testing. This figure is well in excess of the figures detected in each of the first four cycles, which in total amounted to 526 cases.

In answer to a parliamentary question from Sinn Féin Tipperary TD Martin Browne last week, Minister McConalogue noted: “Serial testing [four weeks of weekly testing] at food production facilities started on September 14, 2020. Five cycles have subsequently been completed and a sixth cycle is currently in progress [which commenced on Monday, February 8].

A total of 86,541 tests were completed in 88 food production facilities across cycles 1-4, with 526 cases detected. The detection rate in facilities stood at 0.6% across cycles 1-4, with cycle 4 reporting the highest rate, at 0.9%.

The minister explained that, in the period of cycle 5 (January 11 to February 5), 21,500 test samples were taken, which returned 444 cases.

Commenting after receiving the minister’s response, deputy Browne said: “Unfortunately, there has been some increase in positive cases, which may be due to the overall increase we have seen since the beginning of the year; but it still needs careful monitoring and a robust response.

“Serial testing should have started earlier than September, given that clusters in these settings have been a regular feature during the pandemic.

These figures – and the responses taken – need to be provided to us on a regular basis so that we can know that sufficient effort is being made to protect our workers and inspire confidence in the communities in which these plants operate.

The minister also told Browne what he had also earlier told former minister Dara Calleary – that the department was working to roll out rapid antigen testing in meat plants that wish to avail of it.

On this point, Browne stated: “I urge [the minister] not to delay in bringing this to fruition. All of these measures are well overdue.”