You used to be able to smell the meatworks in Melbourne’s western suburbs before you could see them.
The first abattoirs operated on the banks of the Maribyrnong, and butchers dumped offal straight into the river. As Footscray became the industrial heartland of Melbourne, the meat business expanded and pushed further west into factories close to the railway line.
The meatworks that have survived are rarely smelt and hardly seen, tucked away amongst shuttered warehouses and faded shipping containers.
But Victoria’s meat processing businesses are on the nose again; they have been linked to almost 300 cases of coronavirus in the state, with the industry responsible for more cases than any other outside the aged care and education sectors.
As of Saturday, there were 80 cases linked to Somerville Retail Services (SRS) in Tottenham, which provides packaged meat for Coles Supermarkets.
There were 45 linked to the Australian Lamb Company in the south-west Victorian town of Colac, and at least 62 connected to JBS Australia in Brooklyn and at least five cases at Ingham’s poultry processing facility in Thomastown.
The cases came after 111 infections connected to Cedar Meats, which was the largest cluster in Victoria until earlier this month.
Coronavirus and the ‘domino effect’
Cedar Meats, SRS and JBS are located walking distance apart in a small triangle in Melbourne’s west, bordered by Somerville Road, Geelong Road, and the Kororoit Creek.
Paul Conway, the Victorian secretary of the Australian Meat Industry Employees Union, has worked in the industry since 1980, when he took a job on the mutton line of a Geelong abattoir.
Much has changed in the past four decades, including an increasingly casualised workforce.
Many workers in the industry had no choice but to show up for shifts even if they had symptoms, Mr Conway said.
The nature of the work also meant that hundreds of people had to leave and arrive at exactly the same time each day to start their shifts, making it near impossible to socially distance.
Mr Conway said that in some families, a spouse worked a day shift while their partner started in the afternoon, meaning infections could quickly spread within the same business.
“A lot of people didn’t adhere to the requirements and it’s that community contact from outside which is bringing it into the abattoirs,” he said.
“We know there are groups of people who are still not socially distancing. They’re carpooling with other workers or family members, dropping some off at different sites on the way.
“One of them gets it and it’s just a domino effect.”
COVID threat reaches beyond the workplace
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton described social distancing at meatworks as “intrinsically difficult” in May, when the Cedar Meats cluster started to climb towards 80.
Mr Conway believes that within a month of this, with restrictions easing and society appearing to edge back to normal as case numbers dropped to double digits, workers relaxed at home and caused an explosion in cases.
One of those meat workers who was infected during this month from mid-May to mid-June was a boner in his late 50s who had worked for more than two decades at Cedar Meats.
The man passed that infection to at least seven other family members, including his children and grandchildren.
One of his sons, who was speaking to the ABC on condition of anonymity because he said the family had been stigmatised after their positive tests, said his father spent 12 days in an induced coma overcoming the infection, which had exacerbated existing medical conditions.
His sisters worked at Myer Highpoint servicing online orders, and their infections led to the closure of that site on May 15.
But the family and his father bore no ill-will towards Cedar Meats.
“They’re good people, and at the end of the day … we’re here to support them,” he said, adding that his father thought of his employers as his friends.
US catastrophe highlights issues in meatworks
WorkSafe is investigating the outbreak at Cedar Meats, which came after the US battled a devastating outbreak within its meat industry.
More than 16,000 cases were found in US meatworks in April and May, and 86 people died, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found in a report published earlier this month.
“Distinctive factors that increase meat and poultry processing workers’ risk for exposure … include prolonged close workplace contact with co-workers … shared work spaces, shared transportation to and from the workplace, congregate housing, and frequent community contact with fellow workers,” the CDC found.
“Many of these factors might also contribute to ongoing community transmission.”
The CDC found that 87 per cent of those infected were from racial or ethnic minority groups.
Regulator recommends change
On May 21, in an attempt to avoid further clusters, WorkSafe issued a guidance note for Victorian meat and poultry processors based on advice given by the CDC.
The measures in the note were not enforceable but included recommendations around temperature checks prior to shifts and social distancing.
But the guidance note did not recommend reducing the length of shift times from 10 or 12 hours, to six or eight hours — a key recommendation made by the CDC to reduce the number of people in any one business at the same time.
The Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on why enforceable guidelines had not been introduced to workplaces such as aged care facilities and meat processors.
Mr Conway said reducing shift times could have made a difference, but he never feared Australia would suffer the same devastating outbreaks as the US, despite some parallels in living and working arrangements.
“The systems of work over there, they have relied on foreign labour — including illegal immigrants. They work in very close proximity, and then you have Donald Trump saying, you know, ‘If you die on the job you die like a soldier on the field.'”
Meat industry marred by past scandal
Despite the relatively favourable conditions in the Australian industry, issues remain.
There are dozens of small boning rooms with as many as 30 staff. The rooms are largely unregulated and can disappear as quickly as they’re established, Mr Conway believes, and it is possible positive cases at businesses such of these would never be publicly disclosed.
Several people implicated in the scandals exposed by the Royal Commission into the Australian Meat Industry in the 1980s also remain in the business.
Documents released under freedom of information laws in 2012 detail wild allegations uncovered by Justice Edward Woodward, who started the royal commission after a US meat inspector found that beef exported from Australia was actually horse meat.
Justice Woodward also found that donkeys, goats, kangaroos and buffaloes slaughtered for pet food were instead exported as prime beef or lamb, and heard evidence that some Australian Federal Police officers had been bribed with free or discounted meat.
Several men were jailed for their part in the scheme in 1990.
Company records confirm that one of these men maintains close family links to a meatworks where at least one COVID-19 case was recorded earlier this month.
The man could not be reached for comment. His son, who is also involved in the business, declined to comment to the ABC.
Fake beef racket has ‘reformed itself’
The re-emergence of many of these figures in the industry was lamented as far back as 1991 by Nationals MP Peter McGauran, who is now Australia’s consul-general and senior trade and investment commissioner to Houston, Texas.
“The old network has effectively reformed itself. Those at the centre of the meat substitution racket are seemingly irrepressible,” Mr McGauran told the House of Representatives at the time.
“The meat industry cannot afford to have its reputation and credibility compromised, especially as the meat industry is worth nearly $3 billion in annual export earnings.
“But equally important is the need to ensure that the honest efforts and investments of the many owners, operators and workers in the industry are not jeopardised.”
For the most part, smaller operators have been gobbled up by large processors who, by virtue of their size, have also had the biggest clusters.
Cedar Meats grew from a family butcher shop in the 1980s to more than 300 staff.
SRS is owned by Paul Cook, a multi-millionaire former butcher who also owns other food processing businesses.
JBS Australia is a division of JBS Global, a company founded in Brazil which claims to be the largest protein processor in the world.
Cedar Meats reopened on May, about a month after closing.
As cases climb in Victoria, the two meat processing business only a short walk away, JBS and SRS, remain shuttered.