How does Germany′s meat industry work? | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.06.2020

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How does Germany's meat industry work?

Germany's meat industry is a valuable part of its economy, but it is being heavily criticized following multiple coronavirus outbreaks. DW looks at the money big companies make, and conditions for workers.

Who are the biggest players in the German meat industry?

The largest German slaughterhouse is Tönnies.On the company's premises in North-Rhine Westphalia  around 20,000 pigs are slaughtered and cut up each day. Tönnies has — when measured by the number of animals slaughtered — a 30.3% market share, according to the Syndicate of German Pig Keepers (ISN).

Other large slaughterhouses include Vion, Westfleisch and Danish Crown. Together these four companies make up almost two-thirds of the total market for Germany's meat processing.

A lorry is parked outside the Tönnies factory with people standing nearby

20,000 pigs are slaughtered every day at Tönnies' site in North-Rhein Westphalia

Where do the slaughterhouses get their animals from?

Pigs, cattle and poultry mostly come from German "fattening farms," although they have been decreasing in recent years following protests by animal rights groups.

The number of animals per farm is increasing, which indicates a growth in factory farming in Germany. Farms with 100,000 hens laying eggs are not rare. EU regulations stipulate that a pig weighing 50 kilograms (110 pounds) to 110 kilograms (242 pounds) needs just 0.75 square meters (8 square feet) of space.

"The purely economic view and the associated intensive farming systems in animal farming are ethically questionable and no longer tolerable," said Thomas Schröder, president of the German Animal Welfare Association.

How much money does the meat industry generate?

Meat processing is an important economic sector in Germany. According to the Federal Statistic Office, the turnover for the meat processing industry in 2019 was €42.5 billion ($47.5 billion). Tönnies had by far the highest turnover — with around €6.9 billion ($7.7 billion) — from slaughtering 17 million pigs.

Multiple sausage products on the shelves of a German supermarket

German meat processing companies had a turnover of €42.5 billion ($47.5 billion) in 2019

How much meat is produced in Germany?

In 2019, 59.7 million pigs, cattle, sheep, goats and horses were slaughtered in Germany. Including poultry, companies produced almost 8 million tons of meat.

Much more meat is produced in Germany than is eaten. Almost half of it is exported. German pork, offal and poultry are particularly sought after. The biggest buyer of German pork is Italy at 17%, followed by the Netherlands, China and Poland with 9% each.

How much meat do Germans eat?

Whether as schnitzel, bratwurst or mortadella, last year people in Germany ate around 59.5 kilograms of meat each. But their appetite for meat is declining, according to the Nutrition Report 2020 from the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. The report says only 26% of people eat meat every day. In 2015 that figure was 34%.

A bar chart showing the meat consumption in Germany per capita from 2017 to 2019

Why are there so many coronavirus cases in Germany's meat industry?

A mass outbreak of coronavirus cases at a Tönnies' slaughterhouse has been making headlines since Wednesday. However, there have been a number of outbreaks among employees of German meat companies in recent months.

Virologist Isabella Eckerle gives several reasons why. First, working conditions in slaughterhouses are not compatible with the hygiene measures necessary to prevent a virus from being transmitted to others. People work in closed rooms, with no possibility of maintaining social distancing guidelines.

Second, the accommodation for foreign laborers is often in cramped apartments, with multiple people sleeping in the same room, meaning the virus can easily spread there as well.

Another factor could be the physical strain of the work. Damp hands, gloves, aprons and clothing could promote transmission through smear infections, Eckerle told the German news agency dpa.

Who works in German slaughterhouses?

Many of the workers in German slaughterhouses come from outside the country. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but according to the German government, answering a question from The Left Party, in 2018 almost 50% of workers in slaughterhouses did not hold German passports. Trade unions estimate the migrant workforce currently stands at around 80%.

What are the employment conditions like for workers?

Workers are rarely hired by the meat processing companies themselves, but instead by subcontractors, which mostly hire people in Romania and Hungary before bringing them to work in Germany. Workers received time-limited, labor-specific contracts, which means they receive fewer employment rights than long-term employees. According to the 2018 government figures, they were much likely to work evenings, nights and weekends than employees in other industries.

Several workers examine pig carcasses in a slaughterhouse

Workers in meat processing plants often work in closed rooms and close together

Officially they are paid the minimum wage, which was introduced to the meat industry in 2014 and is currently set at €8.75 ($9.81) per hour — but unions and campaign groups say workers rarely receive that much. Instead, costs are deducted from their pay for multiple reasons.

"Opaque recording of working hours, unclear costs for accommodation, transport and material leave the impression of being cheated," summarizes Armin Wiese, an executive at Germany's Food, Beverages and Catering Union (NGG).  "They realize they are defenseless against the arbitrariness of their employers."

Is anything being done about it?

The government has recently taken steps to outlaw the use of subcontractors in the industry and, instead, make the German companies themselves responsible for employing migrant workers. If the draft law is approved by the German parliament, then the special contracts for migrant workers will be banned as of January 2021, with a maximum fine of €30,000 for forcing people to work longer than 10 hours per day.

It's a step in the right direction, according to Wiese: "Legal bans on temporary work and [special contracts] are urgently needed here. We also urgently need binding collective agreements for the industry."

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