There are fears the Cedar Meats COVID-19 outbreak could have spread COVID-19 between abattoirs.
There are fears the Cedar Meats COVID-19 outbreak could have spread COVID-19 between abattoirs.

Health authorities didn’t consider abattoir as exposure site

Opposition Leader Michael O'Brien has slammed Premier Daniel Andrews after four more cases of the Cedar Meats outbreak were confirmed this morning, saying the government "had dropped the ball" on contact tracing.

"This is Daniel Andrews' own Ruby Princess," he said.

"The CHO is claiming the man was not at work when he was infected but there are reports otherwise. The government has dropped the ball on this."

It comes as an investigation is underway to probe if federal Department of Agriculture officials could have spread the coronavirus between abattoirs after they inspected the Cedar Meats facility in Melbourne.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has asked the department to look into when Victorian officials alerted the department of the outbreak.

"I have some concern in which I am investigating because there were Commonwealth departmental people going through those abattoirs doing inspections, and I am just getting to the bottom of when we were notified, because obviously they make an inspection in one abattoir and move to another," Mr Littleproud said on Wednesday morning.

"I want to understand when we were notified and how we were notified because potentially those commonwealth Department of Agriculture people who were in the abattoir potentially could have spread the virus."

Health authorities decided that Cedar Meats Australia was “not considered an exposure site” because the first infected employee “had not been at work while infectious”. Picture: Getty.
Health authorities decided that Cedar Meats Australia was “not considered an exposure site” because the first infected employee “had not been at work while infectious”. Picture: Getty.

It comes as one of Victoria's largest outbreaks of COVID-19 was given a three-week headstart following a major oversight by the state's Health ­Department.

The Australian has revealed health authorities decided that a Melbourne abattoir was "not considered an exposure site" because the first infected employee "had not been at work while infectious".

The Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday night confirmed the first case of COVID-19 linked to the Melbourne abattoir Cedar Meats was diagnosed on April 2 - three weeks before a second case was identified as part of a cluster which has now reached 49 infections.

No federal officials who went to the facility have tested positive for the virus, according to Deputy Nationals Leader Littleproud.

"Before we start pointing the finger, I think we need to understand what's happened and we learn from it," Mr Littleproud said.

"I'm not necessarily pointing fingers but I want to get an understanding of how we get in place protocols that will protect everyone quicker and better.

"As I understand, no one within the Department (of Agriculture) working in that part of the department has tested positive in this stage.

"We're trying to pieces together the chain of events."

He said that despite the outbreak, Australians should still buy Australians meat.

"People should not fear any meat that was processed through any abattoirs," Mr Littleproud.

"It cannot be processed through any meat. There is no panic needed in that."

Thr factory has been closed until at least May 18. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Thr factory has been closed until at least May 18. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

Tuesday night's statement from the Victorian health department represented a dramatic change in its public position on the meatworks cluster. Previously, it had claimed the first positive was detected on April 24.

The DHHS on Tuesday confirmed an additional 11 cases linked to the facility in the western suburb of Brooklyn, after it was shut down on Friday with an expectation that it will not reopen until May 18, following thorough cleaning.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has warned the Cedar Meats outbreak shows stricter health and safety laws are needed before more people go back to work.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said the cluster showed current regulations were inadequate.

"In order to avoid a second wave of infections, we need better protections and strong enforcement," she said.

"Physical distancing is absolutely essential in all workplaces to minimise the chances of the virus spreading, we need laws to ensure this happens as it cannot be 'business as usual' when workplaces reopen.

"The labour hire workers at Cedar Meats, like other casual workers, would not get sick leave and visa workers have even fewer protections, this means they are less likely to stay at home or get tested if they have mild symptoms they might mistake for the flu.

"All workers need to know they can go and get tested and isolate if they have any symptoms whatsoever without losing income.

"It only takes one workplace for an outbreak to occur and the whole community is affected, we will face this enmasse if the economy is to reopen, so let's learn from this example and put in place all the protections we need to give Australia the best chance of reopening safely."



Cedar Meats general manager Tony Kairouz has said he "first ­became aware" that one of his 350 employees was infected on April 27, after a worker was rushed to the Sunshine Hospital for emergency surgery on a severed thumb and tested positive for COVID-19.

But in response to questions from The Australian submitted hours earlier, DHHS confirmed late on Tuesday that the "first case in this cluster was diagnosed on 2 April, but had not been at work while infectious so the workplace was not considered an exposure site".

"The second case linked to the workplace was diagnosed on 24 April, followed quickly by a third case just over 24 hours later who had been a patient at Sunshine Hospital for unrelated reasons prior to diagnosis or displaying symptoms," the department confirmed. "These cases were the first indication of a possible cluster. As soon as more than one case linked to the workplace was identified, active case finding commenced. The source of infection is still under investigation.

"A thorough risk assessment was undertaken and work was ­rapidly scaled back at the facility, with only minimal staff on site to ensure the safe and appropriate management of the remaining ­animals.

"When more cases were identified on 29 April the department advised the workplace to take ­additional actions across the ­entire workforce - including the testing of all staff. All results are expected to be returned as soon as possible and the results shared daily.

"The facility has been advised to close for at least 14 days, which will continue to be reviewed based on health information.

"Advice from Food Standards Australia New Zealand is that there is no evidence 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."

The department has confirmed another three cases among close contacts of Cedar Meats workers who tested positive.

Four cases were confirmed in staff working in one area of the plant last Wednesday, with eight cases confirmed by Saturday, rising to 15 on Sunday.

On Monday, an additional 19 cases were confirmed, with a further­ ­11 confirmed on Tuesday and four today.

The original source of the outbreak has not been established, and there is no known connection between a shipment of mutton from Cedar Meats which was exported to China last month, and the infections, which were first detected more than a fortnight later.

The 35 tonnes of mutton was trucked to the airport and flown to Wuhan, China, on April 9, as the backload on a flight which arrived in Sydney the previous day with 90 tonnes of protective masks, gowns and ventilators.

The Victorian government and Health Department chose not to name Cedar Meats at the weekend as the abattoir linked to the COVID-19 cases, despite naming a school linked to just one case.

- Full story at The Australian here

Originally published as Abattoir outbreak likened to 'Andrews' own Ruby Princess'