WEST Melbourne meat processor and exporter Cedar Meats has been confirmed as the location of Victoria’s latest COVID-19 cluster, with a total of 34 coronavirus cases up to this morning.
Those confirmed as infected with COVID-19 in connection with the sheep, goat and calf processing facility include 19 of the 22 new cases identified in Victoria overnight, bringing the state’s case total to 1406.
It is the Australian meat processing industry’s first COVID-19 outbreak, while American meat processor closures, worker absenteeism, and safety measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have cut US beef and pork processing by more than 40 percent of capacity.
Despite industry knowledge of the Brooklyn facility’s identity and recent disclosures of any aged care businesses or schools affected by COVID-19, the Victorian Government has continued to defend its refusal to identify Cedar Meats.
However, Cedar Meats general manager Tony Kairouz issued a media statement yesterday that confirmed a number of the business’ employees have tested positive for coronavirus.
“The welfare and safety of our staff, visitors, suppliers and customers is our highest priority.
“All workers are self-quarantining and we are working closely with the Victorian health authorities,” he said.
“All meat processed at our facilities is processed in accordance with Australian standards for food safety and our customers can be confident that the meat processed at our facilities is safe to eat.”
The processor’s Brooklyn facility was closed last Friday for cleaning and its 300 staff members are being tested for the coronavirus.
Victoria’s Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos has not disclosed how or from whom the Cedar Meats outbreak originated, nor whether this was connected with the business’ recent airfreight export of mutton to China.
Cedar Meats last month organised a mutton airfreight shipment for the re-opening of Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei Province and the original epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. The mutton shipment sourced from Cedar Meats in Victoria was airfreighted to Wuhan as the backload on a flight that arrived in Sydney with COVID-19-related medical supplies.
Click here to read Cedar Meats latest media statement.
Abattoir outbreak handled appropriately – Premier
At a press conference this morning, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews said the COVID-19 outbreak at the processor has been handed appropriately “at all stages.”
Victoria’s chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton said meat processors are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
“We’ve seen from the US, extremely large outbreaks in meat works, in some ways because they are forced to work closer than some other workplaces.
“The plan to test across those staff was appropriate and as soon as that cluster was identified they’ve been moving to have the non-essential workers … and move to a shutdown at the earliest possible time.
“But there were some logistic constraints about not having everyone cease work immediately … they had to go through processing to be able to get there.”
Professor Sutton admitted “it has always been the case that if we need people in the community to understand whether they might have been exposed to a cluster or an outbreak of cases that we identify those sites.
“If we are following up everyone we have the names and contact details of everyone in a site and we are not concerned about the general community being exposed, then there is no specific public health reason to name those places.”
Professor Sutton said it is the role of the meat works to identify themselves.
“It is not for us to declare that it is a particular setting, if the meat works wants to name itself to be clear that it doesn’t involve other places, then they are free to do so.”
He said naming the meat works is not required for the health department to do its public health follow-up work.
“We follow-up and if community members need to be told because they are part of the public health follow-up we’ll do so.”
Animal welfare issues delayed plant shutdown – Sutton
Professor Sutton said there were also animal welfare issues with the meat works business.
“So you need a minimum staffing on site to ensure that animal welfare is looked after.
“Everyone who was a contact was in quarantine, so the public health risk was being managed, and there was very very broad testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals to identify anyone else, and that’s what has turned up the additional cases today,” he said.
“They went down to a minimal staffing for the purposes of being able to transition to a full shutdown.”
Professor Sutton said the meat works outbreak was “not the worst in terms of numbers, and most of those 19 individuals were asymptomatic and all of them will have been in quarantine at the time that they have been identified.”
“So it’s not a risk to the general community and it’s not going to get out of control and it is shut down, so I think it has been handled extremely well.”
On Sunday, Ms Mikakos said it has been the policy of Victoria’s Health Department to only identify the location of an outbreak if there is a significant health risk.
“What’s been assessed here, and they do this on a case-by-case basis, you know, that this is a closed work setting where more than 300 staff members have now been tested.
“You know, it is a large work site, all the staff have been provided with the relevant information,” she said.
“I would encourage if anyone has any concerns whatsoever about this outbreak and potentially feels that they may have been exposed in some way, that they can call the coronavirus hotline (1800 675 398) and seek more advice.
“We are absolutely committed to keeping the community safe,” Ms Mikakos said.
“In this case, the assessment has been made by the public health team that there is no need to identify this location, but if that was to change, if that advice was to change, or if there was another outbreak elsewhere, and the advice was different, I wouldn’t hesitate at all to name the location.”
This morning, Premier Andrews said 13,000 Victorians were tested for COVID-19 yesterday and state now had “a set of numbers that are the envy of the world, but it’s not to say that it is set in stone though, this is fragile, it can change and it can change rapidly.”
“And we’ve seen that, at a mental health facility, at a meat works, at schools right throughout this.
“We’ve seen outbreaks in lots of different settings and there is every reason to expect that we will have outbreaks in the future,” he said.
“But doing these additional tests is really important to give us this sense of confidence that there is not something out there that we are not aware of, as best you can ever be when it comes to a pandemic like this.”
All meat from PrimeSafe licensed facilities “safe to eat”
Victoria’s food safety regulator PrimeSafe yesterday said the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is managing a COVID-19 outbreak linked with a Victorian meat processing facility.
“PrimeSafe is assisting DHHS to determine that food safety regulatory requirements have been met by the facility, and to understand supply chain connections to assist with staff tracing.
“All meat processed at PrimeSafe-licensed facilities must be fit for human consumption and produced in accordance with Australian Standards for food safety,” PrimeSafe said.
“This includes meat processed at the Victorian meat processing facility.”
PrimeSafe said in accordance with advice from Food Standards Australia New Zealand there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted to people through food or packaging.
“Based on this information, consumers can have confidence that meat processed at the facility is safe to eat.
“As usual, consumers should ensure that all meat is thoroughly cooked, especially minced meat and hamburgers,” the agency said.
Information about food safety for consumers and general food businesses relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic is available on the DHHS website. PrimeSafe’s website has information for Victorian meat processing facilities, and the DAWE website provides information relevant to Australian agriculture and food exports.