The German government is looking into legal liability in the case of a slaughterhouse where more than 1,300 workers have tested positive for Covid-19, Labour Minister Hubertus Heil told public broadcaster ARD on Monday.
"I believe that we must investigate the options for liability under civil law in this area," Heil said, noting the costs incurred for dealing with the health measures and on the wider economy.
Heil said he expected Toennies, the company concerned, to "do everything" to limit the damage after at least 1,331 novel coronavirus cases were confirmed at the slaughterhouse on Sunday.
Toennies said over the weekend that it was considering assuming the costs of general testing in the municipality of Guetersloh, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the offending plant is situated.
Federal government spokesman Steffen Seibert said the law would be amended from the start of 2021 to ensure improved working conditions. The individual states and customs services had already been instructed to impose stricter checks, he said in Berlin.
Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner said the outbreak at the Toennies plant, which employs many workers from Eastern European nations like Romania and Bulgaria, was not an isolated case.
"The system cannot continue in this way," she told the Monday edition of newspaper Passaue Neue Presse.
Production and delivery
She cast doubt on whether production and delivery on a "just-in-time" basis was the correct approach to meat packing.
Norbert Walter-Borjans, the head of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), a partner in the coalition government, said the meat sector had created a system "in which workers are treated like links in a supply chain. Everything has to be as cheap as possible."
The government needed to assure good working conditions and correct treatment of animals, he said. "Of course, that will make the products more expensive."
North Rhine Westphalia Premier Armin Laschet said on Sunday there was as yet no reason to lock down the Guetersloh municipality, as the infections were localized.
All of the slaughterhouse workers are now in some form of quarantine, with some 7,000 people under quarantine restrictions.