An Australian meatworks is at the centre of a virus outbreak

CANBERRA • A coronavirus outbreak has shuttered a sheepmeat processing plant in southern Australia, in an echo of much broader closures in North America, but a top industry representative said it was an isolated incident.

Cedar Meats (Aust) Pte Ltd, less than 10km from the centre of Melbourne, can slaughter, process and transport up to 10,000 units a day, supplying brands including Southern Pride Premium Lamb and Jimba Premium Lamb and shipping to places like the US, the European Union and China, according to its website.

All workers at the Cedar Meats facility are self-quarantining and the company is working closely with state health authorities, GM Tony Kairouz said in a statement to radio station 3AW. All meat processed from the facility is safe to eat, he said.

A total of 19 cases detected on Sunday originated at the factory, bringing the plant’s total to 34, Brett Sutton, chief medical officer for Victoria state, told reporters yesterday. The facility employs about 350 people, The Age reported.

“Meatworks are particularly vulnerable, we’ve seen from the US extremely large outbreaks in meatworks, in some ways because they are forced to work closer than in some other workplaces,” Sutton said. After the Australian cluster was identified, the meat processing plant moved to allow only essential workers who could address animal-welfare issues, he said.

A top industry representative said this was an isolated event. “This is a single incident at a single site, and we are not seeing any broader implications for the industry as a whole,” said Patrick Hutchinson, CEO of the Australian Meat Industry Council. “It won’t have a major impact with regards to supply.” The council says the industry employs over 100,000 people directly.

There’s some risk to the supply chain when any facility shuts down, said Commonwealth Bank of Australia commodities strategist Tobin Gorey. “This is the first case I’m aware of in Australia, so alone it’s unlikely to have a big impact on consumers,” he said.

Australia has about 6,800 cases of the virus with 95 fatalities, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison is expected to detail plans to lift social-distancing curbs on Friday. The daily growth of new infections has slowed to less than 1%, but there are concerns clusters — such as in meat plants or aged-care facilities — could jeopardise a quick end to the lockdown that’s closed large sections of society and pushed the country toward its first recession in nearly three decades.

In the US, meat plants have been forced to slow output as producers grapple with a loss of labour. Social-distancing measures will also likely keep output trailing normal levels even as facilities reopen under an executive order from US President Donald Trump. Outbreaks have meant slaughterhouses are being retrofitted with physical barriers to keep workers safely away from each other.

US cattle slaughter dropped 37% last week from a year earlier, Department of Agriculture data show. That far outstrips the 10% to 15% of capacity that’s been halted with meat plants closed after coronavirus outbreaks among employees. Hog slaughter was down 35%, also topping the shutdown figure of 25% to 30%. — Bloomberg