A senator has called for meat plants to be obliged to inform local communities of Covid-19 outbreaks in plants.

Cork Senator Tim Lombard has shown concern that members of the community in Bandon found out about a recent significant outbreak of 66 cases in a nearby plant “through the media”.

He told this week’s Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine that the big issue for communities is the “lack of information”.

“We’re leaving it to meat plants – if they want to, they will inform communities what’s happening and that’s probably not good enough,” the senator said.

We need to work on protocols, because at the moment they’re not there and it’s literally how one particular plant or one particular organisation wants to deal with it.

“Some are better than others; some just close up shop and say it’s not an issue; but I just think we need to have some direction that if there is an outbreak, there needs to be information given to the community.”

The minister said that the same protocols apply to meat plants as they do to any other business.

“The particular difference in relation to meat factories is we also have ongoing serial testing as an additional aid to oversee infections rates; and to work with the factories to try and ensure that they’re minimised.”

‘Everything is hush hush’

Responding to queries from TD Matt Carthy on rolling testing arrangements in meat plants, the minister said “there is intensive and ongoing engagement between my own department and meat factories in relation to this”.

“Like with the wider society in the past number of weeks, there have been particular challenges for all in relation to infection rates and the increased challenge in terms of trying to ensure that the very significant infection rates don’t impact on employees,” the minister continued.

The serial testing is continuing, it has been important as well in trying to determine risk, to try and identify where they may be positive cases and that will continue in the time ahead too.

However, this response was met with some skepticism, with TD Martin Browne saying that if testing is continuing “and everything is above board, why isn’t more information coming out? Everything is hush hush”.

Mink farms

The minister also clarified that the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr. Tony Holohan has “indicated he is no longer concerned in relation to the risk that mink pose”.

In November, the Department of Health indicated that the continued farming of mink represents an ongoing risk of additional mink-adapted SARS-CoV-2 variants emerging and recommended that farmed mink in Ireland should be culled to minimise or eliminate this risk.

There are three large mink farms operating in Laois, Donegal and Kerry.

Giving an update, Minister McConalogue said:

“I had established as minister that [the culling] would require new primary legislation to be carried out. I met with the mink farmers at that stage as well to indicate the request I had received from the CMO and the intention to pursue that.

In the interim period, there was ongoing testing of both mink and staff at the farms to protect against the risk of the strain spreading or becoming a risk. Since then, more recently, the CMO indicated he is no longer concerned in relation to the risk that mink pose, and he’s no longer seeking the culling of mink from a health point of view.

“Nonetheless, there is a clear commitment in the Programme for Government that we would phase out mink farming.

“So, I am proceeding on the basis that we are finishing and looking to close out mink farming in the country. I will be coming forward shortly with legislation that will facilitate the proceeding of a cull and bringing an end to mink farming in the country.”