I thank Deputy Bríd Smith. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department, in addition to carrying out its statutory role in meat plants regarding food safety, animal health and animal welfare, is providing to the HSE and Health and Safety Authority, HSA, any support required at local and national levels.
The Department continues to work closely with the relevant health authorities, which are responsible for the public health decisions made on the meat sector. If the public health authorities decided to review the experience of outbreaks in the sector, as suggested by the Deputy, the Department would certainly participate in such a review. It is important to note that the public health advice for meat-processing plants has evolved since the start of the pandemic as the understanding of the risk factors has increased.
Meat plants, particularly boning halls, can be noisy and humid workplaces and for food safety reasons the temperature is kept low through the recirculation of chilled air. The experience internationally has been that because of these factors, the Covid-19 virus can be transmitted relatively easily between workers in meat plants. To address these risk factors, detailed sector-specific public health guidelines were issued to meat processing plants early last summer, and implementation of these continues to be monitored.
As of 14 May 2021, the Department had completed 895 inspections, including unannounced inspections, on behalf of the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, in Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine-approved food premises. These inspections are ongoing and are in addition to the inspections carried out by the Health and Safety Authority itself, and in addition to the 49 premises where the Department has a permanent presence. The Department has also supported the HSE as required in the context of local outbreak teams.
The Department continues to participate on a standing committee established last August to, inter alia, oversee a programme of polymerase chain reaction, PCR, serial testing of workers at larger meat plants and each cycle of PCR testing consists of four week cycles of testing. The first cycle started on 14 September 2020 and a further eight cycles have been completed to date. More than 180,000 tests have been carried out from cycles one to eight, with a positivity rate of 0.77% overall. The ninth cycle of serial testing is currently under way.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
The Department has led and encouraged the roll-out of rapid antigen detection testing, RADT, at meat processing plants, as a risk mitigation measure. It is also participating in a Science Foundation Ireland research project on the risk factors and enhanced measures for risk mitigation for Covid-19 in meat processing plants.