A meat truck stands in front of the headquarters of the meat processing company Toennies in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck, western Germany. | FRIEDEMANN VOGEL


At least 657 workers at a German slaughterhouse have tested positive for the novel coronavirus since the beginning of this week. Health authorities in the local municipality of Guetersloh promptly placed about 7,000 people under quarantine, including all those who had worked at the site.

Production in the slaughterhouse in the Westphalia region was temporarily suspended, while the district of Guetersloh also closed schools and day care centres. District councillor Sven-Georg Adenauer estimated the plant, which belongs to the Toennies Group, a leading name in Germany's meat industry, would be closed for 10-14 days.

Adenauer said those affected would all be tested for infection. Testing would be done in stages, but no general lockdown for the municipality would be enforced, despite the fact that the important threshold of 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants had been crossed.

Toennies spokesperson Andre Vielstaedte addressed the public on behalf of the owners: "We would like to apologise to the people of the district on behalf of the Toennies family.

"We will do everything we can to get the virus out of the plant so that we can get back to work."

There have been a handful of coronavirus outbreaks in meat-processing plants and slaughterhouses across Germany. Concerns have been raised about the working and living conditions of meat industry workers, many of whom are temporary labourers from Eastern Europe.

After a coronavirus hotspot was identified in a meat-processing plant in Coesfeld in North Rhine Westphalia in May, the government ordered companies involved in the meat industry to conduct regular coronavirus tests on their workers. The Coesfeld plant was temporarily closed.

North Rhine Westphalia Health Minister Karl-Josef Laumann announced on Wednesday that, once again, all slaughterhouse staff and contract workers statewide would be tested for the virus, to ascertain whether the outbreak is an exception or not.

Clemens Toennies, managing partner in the company, discounted general suspicion regarding the industry weeks ago after a virus outbreak at competitor Westfleisch. His company initially reported only isolated individual infections.

Gereon Schulze Althoff, head of the pandemic team at Toennies, noted that cold conditions in factories and the long journeys home of employees to Eastern Europe during the recent religious holidays of Pentecost and Corpus Christi might have been possible factors behind the new outbreak of the coronavirus.

When asked what the coronavirus outbreak at the Toennies plant says about the easing of lockdown measures so far in North Rhine Westphalia state, Premier Armin Laschet said:

"That says nothing at all because Romanians and Bulgarians have entered the country and the virus has come from there.

"This has nothing to do with the relaxation, but with the housing of people in the accommodation and the working conditions in companies."

Apart from the local outbreaks, infections in Germany continue to develop at a low level, with 156 out of 412 counties reporting no new infections to the government's infectious diseases body, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), in the past seven days.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, more than 187,000 people in Germany have been shown to be infected with the coronavirus, the RKI reported on Wednesday.

According to the RKI, more than 8,800 people infected with the virus have died in Germany and around 174,000 people have survived.