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Offaly meat factory announces suspension of operations following criticism for opening this morning

Three other meat factories in Kildare, which is also under regional Covid restrictions, have temporarily closed.

Entrance to Carroll's factory in Tullamore, Co Offaly.
Entrance to Carroll's factory in Tullamore, Co Offaly.
Image: Niall Carson

Updated Aug 10th 2020, 7:10 PM

OFFALY-BASED MEAT factory Carroll Cuisine has announced that it will suspend operations on its Tullamore site following criticism it received for resuming operations this morning despite a cluster of Covid-19 cases in recent weeks. 

The factory was the only one of four meat factories not to have suspended production following the introduction of regional Covid-19 restrictions by Government last Friday.

The restrictions were prompted by a spike in cases in Kildare, Laois, and Offaly in recent weeks, mainly associated with meat factories.

The Government announced two weeks of regional restrictions on Friday to prevent further transmission. 

Meanwhile, Siptu and Meat Industry Ireland have met to discuss the issue. They agreed at the meeting on a wider level of Covid-19 testing at meat processing plants, they told RTÉ.

Carroll Cuisine closure

In a statement this afternoon, Kieran Carolan, Chief Executive of Carroll Cuisine, said there was a total of nine confirmed cases among employees and that the first case was confirmed on 31 July.

“We have been working closely and co-operatively with the HSE and, while positive case levels among our staff are low, we believe that the best approach is to take this break in operations over the days ahead until we can evaluate the results of comprehensive tests which were undertaken for our staff on a precautionary basis yesterday in co-operation with the HSE,” he said. 

“We welcome proposals by the Minister for Agriculture for a 14 day recurring testing programme for the meat sector and we will participate fully in any such initiatives.

“Our employees will continue to be paid as normal. We are very grateful to our staff for their excellent dedication and commitment and for the support and encouragement of our communities however we believe this temporary suspension of operations is the best course of action at this time.”

CARROLLS CUISINE 758A0562 A person wearing protective gear dumping waste at Carrolls Cuisine meat plant in County Offaly today, which has suspended operations. Source: Rollingnews.ie/Eamonn Farrell

Earlier this morning, Junior Minister and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming called on Carroll Cuisine to immediately halt their operation to prevent transmission of the virus. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Fleming said: “The reason is clear cut, it’s that there has been a lot of Covid in [the Carroll's] factory, as in the others, and the other three have taken a positive, proactive view and done the right thing and I’m calling on Carrolls to do what everybody else is doing.” 

The wider picture

Over the weekend, it was confirmed that Kildare Chilling in Kildare Town had more than 150 confirmed cases, O’Brien Fine Foods in Naas had more than 80 cases, and Irish Dog Foods had more than 50. 

In comparison, Carroll Cuisine in Tullamore had just nine cases confirmed but Fleming suggested the factory should close to prevent those confirmed cases leading to further transmission.  

coronavirus-mon-aug-10-2020 Lorries seen at the factory in Tullamore today. Source: PA/Niall Carson

“I accept the numbers vary from factory to factory but they could increase, we’re in the middle of a spike, the spike in Ireland is getting worse than England at the moment. It’s not about the historic figures, we have to contain it. I think it’s in everybody’s interest that every meat factory with a case should close down,” Fleming said. 

Responding to Fleming’s calls, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, however, told reporters that Fleming’s interjection was unhelpful.

“I don’t really think it’s helpful for individual politicians to be falling all over each other to tell people to close their businesses – those decisions have to be led by people who are experts,” he said.

Varadkar also clarified that it depended on why you had been tested for Covid-19 whether you have to self-isolate until you receive the results.

If you don’t have Covid-19 symptoms, and you’re not a close contact of a confirmed case, but you’re waiting for a test result as part of a “sweep” across an industry, then “that doesn’t require people not to go to work,” he said.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly at the weekend said it is his view the factories should not reopen this morning in any of the three restricted counties. 

More than 300 cases of Covid-19 have been identified at meat plants in the region in recent weeks.

While speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme earlier today, the Tánaiste said: “Three of the four meat plants have closed, one hasn’t. There is an outbreak team involved with that meat plant.” 

“The power does exist under the public health legislation for the HSE to order businesses to close… I trust that public health officials who are involved with this and engaging with the plants will make the right decision if it is necessary to post a closure order.”

Siptu meets with Meat Industry Ireland

Trade union Siptu and representatives of Meat Industry Ireland met in Dublin this morning. 

The meeting was agreed several weeks ago but no date had been set until early last week, just days before the most recent clusters in meat processing factories came to light. 

The impact on staff, the closure of meat factories where large numbers were diagnosed with the virus, and how to ensure staff are protected into the future were discussed as a priority.

Following that meeting, Siptu’s Greg Ennis said: “In what was a frank and robust meeting it was agreed that Siptu and Meat Industry Ireland representatives will seek to  engage with the HSE to discuss the necessary improvements to testing protocol at meat plants.”

Speaking to TheJournal.ie ahead of that meeting, Ennis had said: 

We predicted [this outbreak] would happen on 23 June and we were right because the meat industry is the perfect vector for the spread of Covid.

On RTÉ Drivetime this afternoon, Ennis said that “we have a situation now where over 10% of the workforce in this sector are affected by Covid-19″.

He said that workers should be removed from unsafe work environments without a loss of earnings and be tested on an ongoing basis. 

TheJournal.ie contacted Meat Industry Ireland for comment in relation to that meeting but did not receive a response at time of publication. However, in a separate statement this morning it said it has written to the HSE National Standing Oversight Committee seeking early engagement to facilitate the planning of testing at its member facilities.

Some of the other issues discussed were in relation to working conditions and sick pay.

The question of how testing for meat plant workers would be funded was raised at the meeting.

Ennis said that Siptu told Meat Industry Ireland, whose members own meat plants around Ireland, that it would be up to them along with the government and the HSE to consider how the testing would be paid for.

It was confirmed at a press briefing this evening that the HSE would pay for the workers’ tests.

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Multiple closures

O’Brien’s Fine Foods in Timahoe, Co Kildare initially suspended its processing operation after more than 80 people tested positive for the virus. 

Announcing its factory would be remaining closed yesterday, it said it will not be reopening for a period of 14 days in total and additional measures will be put in place to support a return to work for its employees. 

BRADY FAMILY HAMS 758A0052 O’Brien Fine Foods plant which produces in the village of Timahoe, Kildare. Source: Eamonn Farrell via RollingNews.ie

“In line with public health guidance, normal operations will not resume for the 14-day incubation period – 4 to 18 August. In consultation with the HSE, our warehousing facility and minimal related operations will function at significantly reduced capacity levels to manage perishable goods,” it said. 

“In line with public health guidance, in addition to testing undertaken to date, a further programme of employee testing will be conducted on days 7 and 14 (as necessary).”

“Only those employees who test negative and meet public health guidelines in full will return to work. All staff will continue to be paid in full.”

A spokesperson for Irish Dog Foods said it has deferred reopening having already been closed for over two weeks. 

“Irish Dog Foods has been closed since Saturday, 25 July 2020 following an outbreak of Coronavirus in the factory. We have worked closely with the HSE and followed their advice at all times,” a spokesperson said.  

“Following the Government decision on the evening of Friday 7 August to introduce a number of public health measures for Kildare, Offaly and Laois, we have deferred the phased re-opening pending further guidance from Government and its agencies.”

Speaking on Drivetime, Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity Pippa Hackett said that it was “wrong” for Carroll’s Cuisine to have opened this morning.

Hackett said that discussions were underway between the Department of Agriculture and the HSE to “examine mechanisms of rolling out a testing regime and how that would be implemented on the ground”.

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