Analysis: Why coronavirus clusters must not force the closure of poultry plants

The COVID-19 crisis is threatening the viability of the poultry sector. Processing plants should be allowed to stay open

Three COVID-19 clusters at poultry processing plants this summer have either totally or partially shut down production. First, 2 Sisters’ Llangefni plant was closed for two weeks until July 3. The first case in a staff member was detected on May 28; this rose to over 200 out of a workforce of 560. Then in mid-August, the biggest poultry plant closure to date: Coupar Angus, again a 2 Sisters plant, in Perthshire, which processes 850,000 birds a week, was closed from August 17-31.

Cases there began with an outbreak of four staff members, and escalated to 173 of the 1,000 workforce testing positive. Also, in late August, Banham Poultry in Norfolk was struck with a cluster. Of its 1,100 staff, 104 tested positive for COVID-19. The plant has brought in an outside crew of 45 to continue slaughtering birds, but the cutting operation has been temporarily closed down and its 1,100 staff are at home isolating for two weeks. The public health case for closing plants has been well communicated. But there are serious implications both economically and for animal welfare during shutdowns.

The backlash from industry is growing, and some politicians – including George Freeman, the MP for mid-Norfolk, whose constituency includes Banham Poultry – agree continued shutdowns threaten the very existence of businesses which are major employers. Freeman said in an interview with the Eastern Daily Press that the outbreak was “potentially catastrophic” for Banham Poultry, urging for government compensation, and also said staff, many of whom were low paid and “lived in hostels” were being let down by an inadequate track and trace operation. “It’s very important that companies like Banham are not allowed to go bust and that we support such companies,” he added.

The chairman of PD Hook and Hook2Sisters told Poultry Business his companies had lost more money in August than they had made over the whole of the last decade, and the expenses were unsustainable. The closure of the Coupar Angus plant had caused chaos on poultry farms in Scotland and had made him question the viability of continuing to operate in Scotland, said James Hook.

He urged politicians, both in Edinburgh and at Westminster, to change their policy of forcing plants hit by COVID-19 to shut down, and instead adopt a pragmatic approach of allowing plants to bring in a skeleton crew of workers with full PPE to continue killing birds, which could then be transferred elsewhere for further processing. Now the Coupar Angus plant has reopened, with a new focus on staff training.

A 2 Sisters spokesman said it was important staff understood how to prevent transmission outside of the factory, including in “transport arrangements, conduct in the community, to keeping COVID-19-safe in a shared household. We expect each and every colleague to take personal responsibility for their own behaviours outside of work,” he said.

UNFOLDING NIGHTMARE

On the evening of August 16, after a long management meeting, 2 Sisters announced the two-week closure of Coupar Angus, with all 1,000 staff and their families told to self-isolate for a fortnight. The effect on poultry farms was instantaneous. Some farms had fully grown broilers that were about to be transported to the plant.

The chickens had to stay put, and a temporary derogation from Red Tractor to exceed the maximum allowable stocking density of 38kg/m was sought. This was granted, but clearly was not a solution that was sustainable on welfare grounds for more than a few days, with each bird gaining around 65g in weight each day.

The company managed to relocate around 1.1 million birds to 2 Sisters’ Scunthorpe plant and Moy Park’s Anwick plants in England, but had to cull 240,000 birds on farm because there was not enough capacity. Livetec Systems carried out the humane cull with mobile gassing units. The cost of rearing the culled birds, the culling operation, plus expenses for disposal – at £100/ kg – ran into millions of pounds, Hook said.

Hook said the implications for his companies were “massive” and that without help from the Scottish government, or a change in rules that would allow plants hit by COVID-19 to remain open with a skeleton staff to kill birds, he would have to close down his operations in Scotland because it would be “too difficult and expensive” to weather another plant closure. “It will be impossible for us to keep producing chicken,” said Hook. Hook2Sisters in Scotland employs 288 people on poultry farms, plus 30 in haulage and 40 catchers.

POLITICAL DECISION

Everyone “from Nicola Sturgeon down” was aware of the effect the closure was having on the poultry industry in Scotland, said Hook, but Sturgeon’s sole focus was public health. Fergus Ewing, the Scottish government’s cabinet minister for the rural economy, was far more sympathetic to the cause of keeping plants open, said Hook. Hook said if plants continued to be shut down in England the poultry industry could be forced to scale back production by around 10% to enable plants to take birds from other regions if their local plant closed.

Earlier this year, when 2 Sisters’ Llangefni plant in Wales closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak among staff, the situation was more manageable. The plant was smaller and there were other processing plants relatively close. All the birds were able to be diverted to other plants, including Willand in Devon.

EVOLVING SITUATION

At Banham Poultry in Norfolk, the situation is – for now – slightly different. The management team, led by Blaine van Rensburg, has kept a minimal crew on site. However, capacity has been significantly reduced. A quarter of a million have had to be diverted to other plants due to lack of capacity and 300,000 have been culled with gas and not gone into the food chain.

Norfolk public health director Dr Louise Smith said the infection rate in the county was high and considered “a significant national outbreak”. There has also been a single case linked to Bernard Matthews’ processing plant in Norfolk.

NFU regional director Gary Ford said the NFU was maintaining close contact with the senior management team at Banham Poultry. “The priority has to be the health and safety of everyone working at Banham, taking the necessary steps to ensure this outbreak is rapidly brought under control and further transmission of the virus is prevented,” he said. “However, this processing plant plays an important role within the local food chain so any reduction in capacity there clearly has implications for the poultry farms who supply it.

“We will be offering support to our members who supply the business and talking to Defra and other organisations about what alternatives would be available if a decision is taken to close the factory completely.”

Dr Louise Smith told PB the challenge for the factory would be getting workers through their period of isolation to enable full production to begin again.

LITTLE SPARE CAPACITY

Richard Griffiths, the BPC’s chief executive, agreed plants must remain open. He said forcing poultry plants to shut down would threaten Britain’s food supply and compromise animal welfare, due to the structure of the industry, with 20m birds a week slaughtered through a small number of large plants.

“As an efficient sector, there is very little spare capacity when a large slaughterhouse is forced to shut down,” he said. Closing plants interrupts food supply and threatens “job losses at a time when we can least afford it, but also result in bird welfare challenges on a significant scale.”

Griffiths acknowledged there was a trade-off that had to be calculated when considering the closure of plants. “We have to prioritise the health of people in our community, but we also need to safeguard food supply and the welfare of our animals. “We are working closing with Defra and other relevant authorities to ensure reasonable steps are put in place to minimise welfare issues and maintain food supply. We must ensure that poultry meat plants compromised by a COVID-19 outbreak are able to maintain throughput where possible, even if it means having skeleton staff on-site.”

The reality is it is unlikely we have seen the last coronavirus cluster at a poultry plant. As we prepare for autumn, it may be time to consider how to keep plants operating and avoid more mass culls on farm. As George Freeman told the BBC last week: “It’s vital we save lives but it’s important we get the balance right and prevent job losses.” 

Get Our E-Newsletter - Weekly email news from Poultry News
Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy
Share.