Corona in the Slaughterhouse The High Price of Cheap Meat

German slaughterhouses have been hit recently with horrifying coronavirus outbreaks, with over 1,000 cases in one facility. The industry, and its biggest players, share the blame. Change could be coming. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Clemens Tönnies, sometimes called the "Pork Chop Prince"

Clemens Tönnies, sometimes called the "Pork Chop Prince"

Foto:

Bernd Thissen/ dpa

The white-plastered house near Münster in the far west of Germany isn't really a home at all. It's more of a dormitory, like so many others in this area. It offers a place to sleep until the next shift begins.

In recent days, however, it has been transformed into a prison.

The steel gate leading to the front yard is bolted shut and nobody is allowed to leave. The Romanians who live here behind gray shutters and barred ground-floor windows are under quarantine - and they all work for Tönnies, which operates the largest slaughterhouse in Germany in nearby Rheda-Wiedenbrück.

On Tuesday of this week, a couple of the men are lying on blankets outside and drinking beer to stave off the boredom and their worries about what might happen next. One of them, who says his name is George, says that 15 workers lived in the house and five became infected. "Three of them were picked up and taken to different lodgings, two are still here."

All under one roof? "Yes, we're afraid of getting infected," says George. "I called the police, and they came and said: We can't help you." So they have isolated the two positive cases, each in a room. George says he was last tested four days ago and that he had no idea if he was positive or not since the results hadn't yet arrived.

When the men aren't under quarantine and working at full capacity, they and the rest of the workers at the factory carve up tens of thousands of pigs per day. It is, in fact, why they came to Germany in the first place. Yet despite being a vital part of meat production, they are treated like second-class humans. They tend to be hired by subcontractors, they are poorly paid, quickly replaced and inadequately protected – even during the current coronavirus pandemic.

George says that a thermometer has been standing right next to the entrance of the slaughterhouse for the last several weeks, but there was never anybody there to operate it. Every morning, they "just walked right on by." It seems the factory didn't want anything to interrupt operations. It was only two days before they were placed under quarantine – once it had become clear that Tönnies was host to the largest coronavirus outbreak since the lockdown in all of Europe – that the company began taking its employees' temperatures. "By then, it was already too late," says George.

Now, Clemens Tönnies – sometimes referred to as the Pork Chop Prince or the Meat Baron – has a problem. For years, he has ruthlessly pursued efficiency, but now, the entire country wants to know what goes on behind his factory gates. He has perfected the art of extracting all he can out of both his employees and the animals they process, transforming living creatures into an industrial product. His strategy was volume, volume, volume and he cut his costs to the bone, becoming the favorite supplier to Germany's discount grocery chains. The company enjoys a 30 percent share of the pork market in Germany.

Slaughterhouse workers from Romania

Slaughterhouse workers from Romania

Foto: INA FASSBENDER / AFP

His slaughterhouses, led by the one in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, are the key link in a production chain in which animals are transformed into cheap meat, a chain that ends with low-price schnitzel in the freezers of discount grocers Aldi and Lidl. The company's ability to slash costs along the entire production line has revolutionized the industry and ensured Tönnies a dominant position in the market. Even the feet of the pigs, shunned by consumers in Germany, are sold as a delicacy in China. And the entire system seemed immutable for as long as consumers were unprepared to pay more for meat and nobody cared about the price paid by the humans and animals involved - by the farmers, the workers and the pigs themselves. This, though, is yet another seeming certainty that the coronavirus has begun to erode.

Time to Reconsider

The coronavirus outbreaks in the meat plants – with 1,400 cases in the Rheda-Wiedenbrück factory alone, combined with lockdowns this week in the regions surrounding the towns of Guterslöh and Warendorf – is forcing us not only to address the question as to why the virus is able to spread so quickly in slaughterhouses. It is also shining the spotlight on the industry as a whole: What actually goes on in the meatpacking industry? What conditions are workers forced to endure? And is it worth it for a couple slices of ham on your breakfast sandwich?

Such questions have, of course, been raised by previous scandals in the grocery industry, but were quickly forgotten again. "The Tönnies crisis makes it clearer than ever that we need to reconsider our approach," says Robert Habeck, co-leader of Germany's Green Party. And it does seem possible that the coronavirus pandemic could, in fact, mark the beginning of a change of course. One indication is the German government's effort to quickly address the long-known shortcomings with a law banning contract work in the meat industry. Another is the harsh words politicians have recently found for Clemens Tönnies and others in the industry.

DER SPIEGEL 27/2020

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 27/2020 (June 27, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

Labor Minister Hubertus Heil, a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), has demanded the company pay all the damages associated with the lockdown and noted in an interview with the website of the tabloid newspaper Bild that Tönnies has made "an obscene amount of money." Christian Democrat Karl-Josef Laumann, health minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state in which Rheda-Wiedenbrück is located, says that voluntary agreements are no longer enough for the meat industry and that laws will have to be passed. Johannes Remmel, the Green Party politician who was state agricultural minister in North Rhine-Westphalia until 2017, even proposed the installation of a "transition management team" for the slaughterhouse in question. One, he said, that would ensure that the factory "obeyed the law."

Even the EU has become involved. Nicolas Schmit, commissioner for jobs and social rights in the European Commission, issued a threat to Germany and other countries that guidelines could be passed to guarantee a greater focus on equity in the industry. He added that proceedings due to a violation of EU contracts may also be considered. Perhaps even more relevant for Tönnies, however, is that even Aldi has turned up the pressure. In a letter to its suppliers, the company insisted on the "adherence to the labor and social standards" that had been agreed to. It also insisted on "the production of goods in accordance with human dignity and fair labor practices." The letter went on to note that even under the type of labor contracts typically employed in the meat industry, "social standards, including when it comes to worker lodgings," must be maintained.

Tönnies, the son of a working-class family who has managed to become a billionaire, also chairs the supervisory board of the professional football club Schalke 04 and had German pop star Helene Fischer sing at his birthday party four years ago. But within just a few weeks, he has turned into a target of hatred and an archetype of capitalism's ugly side. He has suddenly become the poster boy of those who have no use for animal welfare, for labor protection laws or for efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Last Straw?

His public apology - without saying what he was apologizing for – and promises of improvement – without saying how – aren't enough to paper over the situation. A bit of contrition will likely be too little this time around. Tönnies declined to give DER SPIEGEL a lengthy interview and no precise answers were provided to list of questions submitted about the accusations leveled at him and his company.

It could be that this will be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Already, there are far more vegetarians and vegans than there used to be and many more people who only eat meat on special occasions or in small amounts. Until now, Tönnies had profited from all the others, all those for whom a meal isn't a meal without a piece of meat. Might their minds also now be changed?

The food industry includes 16 subcategories, with meat being the largest of them, generating revenues of some 42 billion euros per year in Germany - or 500 euros per person. On average, people in Germany eat 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of meat per year – chicken, beef and, especially, pork.

Slaughterhouses today, though, kill more pigs than Germans can eat, fully 55 million per year – many more than 20 years ago. Back then, domestic production wasn't enough to meet demand, but now, Germany sends meat products around the world. Exports have quadrupled, in part because the huge demand in China. The industry depends on volume, with the reality being just as unattractive as the words used to describe it: factory farming, industrial slaughtering, industrial meat processing.

"Thirty years ago, traditional butchers could still make a decent profit," says Thomas Bernhard of Germany's leading food industry labor union. "Since then, profit margins in the slaughtering industry have been cut massively." According to his calculations, large slaughterhouses generate just a few euros in profit per pig. Slaughtering, butchering and processing an entire animal costs "five to six euros," says Bernhard. Pressure from grocery chains, he says, is enormous.

Tönnies Holding, based in Ostwestfalen, is one of the big players in the industry and is one of the four largest in all of Europe. The others are Westfleisch (based in Münster), Danish Crown (from Denmark) and Vion Food (from the Netherlands). None of them slaughter more pigs in Germany than Tönnies, which has experienced a phenomenal climb in just a few decades.

Clemens Tönnies' father, named Klemens, ran a butcher shop in the old town of Rheda back in the 1960s that would go through between seven and 10 animals per week. His son Clemens, a trained meat technician and businessman, transformed the family business into an industrial player together with his brother Bernd, who died back in 1994. His largest factory is right on the A2 autobahn and it can process up to 30,000 animals each day. Another way of looking at it: Whereas his father needed an entire week to go through 10 animals, the son requires less than half a minute.

A Reunification Boost

It is sold under different labels depending on the grocery chain and ends up in all manner of sausage brands. The company has 28 branches around the world and employs a total of around 16,500 people. In 2019, Tönnies holding brought in revenues of more than 7 billion euros. According to Forbes, Clemens Tönnies is worth almost 2 billion euros.

Until the 1980s, Clemens and his brother Bernd were not big players in the industry. Early on, the company was not involved in the actual slaughtering process, merely carving up and selling the meat. Clemens and Bernd even wielded a knife themselves in the early years, carving away at a wooden table with a German shepherd lying nearby. But they were full of ambition. One of their early takeovers was of a slaughterhouse in Gütersloh, says a state-employed veterinary who was long in charge of inspecting Tönnies and ensuring hygiene. Early on, he says, it was 200 to 300 pigs per shift, a volume at which "inspections were still possible."

Dozens of German troops arrived in Rheda-Wiedenbrück recently as part of the effort to prevent the slaughterhouse coronavirus outbreak from spreading.

Dozens of German troops arrived in Rheda-Wiedenbrück recently as part of the effort to prevent the slaughterhouse coronavirus outbreak from spreading.

Foto: Deeke/ Bundeswehr/ Getty Images

The company's rapid growth began with reunification, and the brothers were among the first to expand into former East Germany. In 1990, Bernd Tönnies took ownership of a formerly state-owned slaughterhouse in Weissenfels near Leipzig. It was the very first contract completed by the Treuhand, the agency charged with privatizing formerly state-owned operations in eastern Germany following reunification. Today, 20,000 animals per day are slaughtered in the facility.

Soon thereafter, the company began growing in western Germany as well, right along with the discounters. Today, Tönnies exports meat to 82 countries and operates facilities in Britain and Denmark. It has 14 feedlots in Russia and plans currently call for the construction of a slaughterhouse in China together with a partner. His nephew Robert, Bernd's son, calls his uncle "megalomaniacal" - the two have been at odds for years.

On his way to becoming the Pork Chop Prince, Clemens Tönnies crossed paths with a state politician who has asked that his name not be used. A member of the Green Party, the politician recalls a trip taken to Rheda-Wiedenbrück as a member of the state parliament's agricultural committee.

They were there at the invitation of Tönnies himself, and the future meat magnate told them exactly how he intended to change the industry. "He clearly said that his strategy was that of breaking the butcher monopoly and developing a new channel for selling meat," the politician remembers. The Tönnies strategy called for selling pre-packed meat out of the self-service cooler in the grocery store rather than buying meat from a butcher behind the counter, as regulations called for.

Tönnies' calculation was that eliminating the counter and the butcher behind it would result in cheaper meat and greater turnover. On that day, according to the Green Party politician, he said that not many butchers would survive. "It was essentially a declaration of open season on your local butcher."

Looking for a Big Player

Bernd had been the one to identify the market niche, but it was Clemens – the younger brother until Bernd's death – who would go on to develop it into a billion-euro business. "He clearly recognized that chains like Lidl or Aldi were not interested in negotiating with three different butchers, but wanted a central supplier that could supply them across half, or even all, of the country," the Green Party politician says.

Tönnies understood that the big players in the grocery industry were looking for a big player in the meat industry and that meat coolers in grocery stores were his ticket to massive growth. "With his market share, he determines the pace, so that an increasing number of small and mid-sized operations can't keep up," says the head of a comparatively small supplier in Westfalen.

With an education in business and meat technology, Clemens Tönnies has worked his way up to billionaire status. He and his wife Margit celebrated his 60th birthday with a huge bash that included an appearance by Helene Fischer.

With an education in business and meat technology, Clemens Tönnies has worked his way up to billionaire status. He and his wife Margit celebrated his 60th birthday with a huge bash that included an appearance by Helene Fischer.

Foto: ANDYKNOTH / BABIRADPICTURE

Tönnies' contemporaries say that he only goes just as far as regulations permit, violating no rules, but taking advantage of them to the degree possible. He has regularly reduced the effectiveness of efforts to improve conditions for both animals and workers because honoring them would eat into profits. Tönnies, though, doesn't simply refuse to comply, says a man who has participated in such discussions. He simply demands so many ecologically sustainable feedlot slots - several thousand of them, paid for by others, of course – that his needs are impossible to meet. According to company figures, only 2 percent of the meat produced by Tönnies facilities comes from animals that are held in conditions that are better than the absolute minimum required.

And that is how the company treats its many employees as well.

Most of the around 16,500 Tönnies employees work in Germany, which could be viewed as a positive. But under what conditions are they forced to live?

During a Tuesday noontime visit to the Tönnies slaughterhouse in the Lower Saxony town of Badbergen, men and women wearing worn white overalls, masks and red hairnets were standing on the street outside. It is a vast compound, and Tönnies is currently building the most state-of-the-art cattle slaughtering and packing facility in all of Europe at the site. It is an 85-million-euro investment and designed to handle 900 animals per day.

One young woman had a square, plastic bucket with her of the kind used for mopping. "They are for the food and few private articles that we are allowed to take inside for our shift – for reasons of hygiene," says one worker, a native of Bucharest named Jean Radu. Neighbors have come up with their own term for the workers: The bucket people.

Radu and his co-workers kill up to 500 cows per day using a stunbolt gun. He says he has nothing bad to say. Those young Romanians who come to Germany for just a couple of months to make a bit of money do have a hard time, he allows. But he is doing well, saying he has been in Germany for 12 years and earns decent wages. He lives in his own apartment together with his wife and two children.

Speechless

A Polish worker in Rheda-Wiedenbrück has a bit more to say, though he is fearful of speaking openly. He says he earns 1,600 euros for 190 hours of work per month. His shifts begin at 3 a.m. and end at 1 p.m., with a 30-minute break every three hours. "We stand at the conveyor belt about 20 to 30 centimeters apart, right next to each other. Often, the speed of the belt is ratcheted up and the supervisor watches us closely." But what else can he do? "My daughter is sick, and I went into debt for her."

Volker Brüggenjürgen hears such stories constantly. He is head of the Gütersloh chapter of the Christian charity Caritas and has been advising Tönnies employees and their families since 2016. He is also Green Party group leader in the city council of Rheda-Wiedenbrück. His conclusion from thousands of conversations held in his Caritas role is that some things have improved over the years, such as the fact that all workers have health insurance. A lot, though, has remained the same, such as the pressure to come to work even if you're sick, and the dependency, born from the fact that many of the workers speak no German. And then, says Brüggenjürgen, "there are still things that leave me speechless."

One woman from Poland, for example, could no longer work because she was pregnant. As a result, says Brüggenjürgen, she not only had to pay twice the rent, because she was spending more time in her accommodations, but she had to continue paying a lump-sum shoe fee of 22 euros for work shoes that she was no longer using.

Like the Romanians in the white-plastered house near Münster, many workers aren't actually Tönnies employees, instead working for subcontractors, and without them, operations at the slaughterhouses would collapse. Tönnies, of course, didn't invent the system, but the company has perfected it. According to Tönnies Holding, 50 percent of its workers are actually employees of such a company.

"We don't recruit people," says a self-confident Dumitru Miculescu, "people come to us." With 1,700 employees, Miculescu is likely the largest Tönnies subcontractor. Back home in Romania, he is called "King of the Pigs." He insists that everything at his company is legit, saying: "We pay taxes to the German state and we pay social-security contributions." He also says that all workers currently under quarantine are receiving their wages. But Miculescu also admits that some of his workers who had contact with positive cases actually traveled back home to Romania, even though they were supposed to have remained under quarantine in Germany.

Josef Besselmann is another important Tönnies subcontractor. His company has specialized in cleaning slaughterhouses for the last 25 years and he also supplies contract workers on the side. Last year, he took in revenues of almost 170 million euros. One video shows him standing in front of his gigantic villa, which looks as though several houses were shoved together, creating a forest of gables. If you mute the sound, he looks almost exactly like a Russian oligarch in his T-shirt and blazer. Besselmann offers Romanian workers a full-service deal: He brings them to Germany; he puts them up in old houses, apartments or group hostels; and he apparently also helps out when they have to quickly disappear again.

Sick and Feverish

On Wednesday, June 17, the district announced it would temporarily close the slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrück. It only took two hours before two vehicles from the company Besselmann Services drove up to Thaddäus Strasse 49 in nearby Verl-Sürenheide, a VW Golf and a VW van pulling a trailer.

Several men dragged three refrigerators, six beds and number of blue plastic garbage bags from an attic apartment that Besselmann had rented to a sausage factory. They then got back in the van and drove away.

Workers and their families are not allowed to leave their apartments, such as here in Verl. Some workers from Romania and Bulgaria traveled back home despite the quarantine.

Workers and their families are not allowed to leave their apartments, such as here in Verl. Some workers from Romania and Bulgaria traveled back home despite the quarantine.

Foto: MARTIN MEISSNER / AP

For months, the owners of the four-unit building had been resisting the idea of allowing people to live in the attic room, which had been declared a commercial space. But suddenly, things started moving quickly. One of the six Romanians looked sick and feverish. A neighbor wrote a message to Verl’s mayor that same night. "Are these people to be sent home quickly in order to prevent a possible continued payment of wages?” she wrote.

Her suspicion didn’t come out of nowhere. She and other residents in the building had learned that the Romanians and Bulgarians had to pay Besselmann 350 euros per person per month in rent, meaning the company received 2,100 euros for an apartment for an apartment that neighbors felt was hardly worth 500 euros. The Romanians had also told people that if they fell ill, they had to pay a "processing fee” of 10 euros a day. They also had to pay 100 euros per month for the "transport service” to their workplace.

When contacted for comment, Besselmann denied all allegations. The company asked "for understanding that, in the current situation, we first have to ensure that our employees who are under quarantine are provided with care and food.” Besselmann said he didn’t have time at the moment to answer questions. "However, we will be happy to do so at a later date and would love to invite you to come here so you can see things for yourself,” he said.

The next Besselmann transport from Romania to Germany is posted on a Facebook page in Romanian. "The transport will leave Romania on June 25, 2020, and pick people up along the following route: Galati - Braila - Buzau - Bucharest - Brasov - Sibiu - Deva - Arad." The cost of the trip will be deducted from your first month’s wages.” The most recent entry on the page states that the trip had been delayed by two days.

The minimum wage for workers in Germany is 9.35 euros per hour. It doesn't allow for extra pay for weekend or holiday work, but additional compensation must be paid for night shifts. That is the law, and it would be unfair to expect slaughterhouses to pay more, even if the work is extremely strenuous.


The question is, though, whether subcontractors actually pay what they are supposed to pay, or whether they pay less than the minimum wage through the "usage fee” for accommodations, which can sometimes amount to several hundred euros, or through wage deductions for mistakes made, delays or consumption of alcohol. Or by not being very particular about keeping track of overtime work.

"Employees aren’t allowed to take watches or mobile phones with them into the plant for reasons of hygiene, and there are few clocks in the halls,” says Caritas board member Brüggenjürgen. "Tönnies has resisted the digital time sheet for years.”  NRW Health Minister Laumann sneers: "Tönnies can tell you which pig the sausage is from, but it is unable to keep track of workers' hours digitally."

Decades of Criticism

The difficult conditions faced by slaughterhouse workers has been well-known for some time, with Tönnies having faced criticism from trade unions and animal welfare activists for years, even decades. Now, though, he is even coming under attack from schoolchildren.

The Tönnies empire is located on the northern end of Rheda-Wiedenbrück, on a main traffic artery. A few balloons and an orange poster have been attached to a road sign next to the entrance. "Mr. Tönnies, give each of us a tablet computer so we can do the homeschooling you have brought upon us. The elementary schoolchildren of Harsewinkel.”

A small fountain splashes in front of the company headquarters and black sedans are parked in the parking lot. A restaurant is located across from it as well as a Tönnies factory outlet, a small supermarket that is currently closed. "The best quality at low prices,” is written in red letters above the refrigerated shelves.

The area in which the animals are butchered comprises only about 10 percent of the large property. This is where the virus is believed to have spread, at least according to the analysis of Martin Exner, the director of the Institute for Hygiene and Public Health at the University of Bonn.

The district administration tasked Exner with tracking the origins of the outbreak, and he spent two days at the slaughterhouse together with his team of researchers. Their testing revealed a problem with the ventilation system. Aerosols were kept in motion by the circulation of the air in the area where the animals were butchered, and many workers were likely infected with the virus as a result, Exner explained at a press conference.

A Second Lockdown

Since Tuesday, residents of the Gütersloh region have been experiencing a bit of déjà-vu, with the state government having reimposed restrictions on public life. The stricter rules have also been imposed on the neighboring district of Warendorf following the coronavirus outbreak at Tönnies. A maximum of two people from different households are allowed to meet; museums and indoor public swimming pools have closed; and, worse yet, all schools and daycare centers, which had only recently reopened, were ordered closed again. More than 600,000 people have been affected by the second lockdown.

A line of people in Gütersloh waiting to be tested

A line of people in Gütersloh waiting to be tested

Foto: SEAN GALLUP / GETTY IMAGES

Anyone who is ill must go to one of three treatment centers that are now in place in the Gütersloh district. The administration has also set up a coronavirus testing center at a vocational college, where anyone with symptoms can go for a test. On Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of people came and waited for hours in the blazing sun until swabs could be taken - families with children who hadn’t yet cancelled their vacation plans and needed a negative test to be allowed to travel. Or those who can’t work from home and who didn't want to infect their co-workers.

Sven-Georg Adenauer, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has been the district administrator in Gütersloh for more than 20 years. On his windowsill is a framed photograph of his grandfather: the former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Last week, the district administrator ordered the suspension of production at the Tönnies plant. He’s now in charge of managing the chaos, and he’s not afraid to admit that the task is "totally overwhelming administrative structures and people.” The day before, he had been forced to send the head of his crisis team home. He was suffering from too much stress and exhaustion.

At that moment, his spokesman enters the office with some more bad news: So many people rushed over to the testing center at the vocational college that doctors there decided to stop administering tests. Fine, Adenauer answers, we will just have to open more testing centers.

Each morning, the district administrator is informed about the number of infected people in his district who don’t work in the meat industry. Adenauer says there are currently about 30 cases that don’t have anything to do with Tönnies. That’s "really nothing,” he says. What worries him, though, is the danger posed by Tönnies workers who don’t comply with the quarantine rules.

Adenauer is currently deploying mobile teams, employees with the public order office and interpretors to maintain contact with the Tönnies people who are required to quarantine in their homes. The district administrator says that his teams failed to locate 18 percent of those workers on one recent day – almost one out of five.

Could it be due to errors in the address lists? Or did the workers perhaps travel back to their home country? That’s what Rumen Z., his wife Maria and her father Krastio A. did. The Bulgarian family from the small town of Beliza in the country’s southwest made their way back home from Rheda-Wiedenbrück a few days ago, despite the quarantine. They didn’t want to stay in Germany out of fear of the coronavirus. So, they arranged to be picked up by a neighbor from Beliza, and invited three more Bulgarians to come along. That’s what Rumen Z. and Krastio A. told a Bulgarian television station. The city’s mayor, Radoslav Revanski, confirmed the story to DER SPIEGEL.

Tönnies employees from Rheda-Wiedenbrück were also found on the Hungarian-Romanian border. Between Sunday and Tuesday, officials stopped a total of 15 people who had fled from their quarantine quarters in private vehicles. The head of the Arad Country public health department confirmed the reports from the Romanian border police. The workers weren’t tested immediately, instead being sent home to quarantine.

"It’s Unacceptable”

District Administrator Adenauer says he is "deeply disappointed” by Clemens Tönnies. "I suspect it all grew too big for him. The times of 'bigger and bigger' and 'more and more' in the meat industry are probably over.”

The district administrator leans forward in his chair. "Twenty-four,” he says, grimacing. That’s the number of subcontractors Tönnies works with in Rheda-Wiedenbrück. Adenauer describes them as "swamp companies.” He talks about the bosses of these companies and their SUVs. It’s also no secret that motorcycle gangs and other shady players have been doing the dirty work for the meat industry for years. "It’s unacceptable,” says Adenauer. There is anger in his voice, which begs the question: Are these problems really all that new to him? Is he truly that naive?

Following an outbreak of corona at the Westfleisch meat processing plant in Coesfeld at the beginning of May, the district of Gütersloh had 6,600 Tönnies workers tested, resulting in seven positive cases. Adenauer recalls a telephone call with Tönnies in which the businessman told him: "We've done our homework, we can do this."

"Only seven positive cases, I was relying on the numbers," says the district administrator. Which is to say: Hindsight is always 20-20. But perhaps he could have seen things even sooner if he hadn’t been as close to Tönnies. Sources in Gütersloh say that there are connections in the area that may have contributed to the lax approach to hygiene rules and which could now make it difficult to figure out exaclty what happened.

Adenauer recently started his own small company selling pickles that are brined using an old Swedish recipe. A few days ago, the jars appeared in an advertisement from Tönnie’s company promoting a contest.

Clemens Tönnies’ wife had asked if she could sell the pickles at the company’s factory outlet. He says he wasn’t aware of the fact they had been used in an advertisement. "I realize this looks bad," says Adenauer. "No money has been paid, there is no contract." He says he only gave Mrs. Tönnies "about 15 jars” around "a month and a half ago.” Adenauer says he has since requested that the jars be taken off the store’s shelves.

Will Politicians Take Action?

The district administrator knows that he has been under a close watch since then and that his integrity is in danger. "The Tönnies company is going to have to rebuild trust,” he says. "It will only be when we can be 100-percent certain that there is no longer a danger to the population from the operation that we can consider reopening the plant.” It sounds as though he is determined not to be taken in again.

As were, for quite some time, politicians in the state capital of Düsseldorf and their counterparts at the federal level. Without the shock unleashed by the pandemic, few would have dared to question the contractual conditions under which meat industry workers labor. German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil, of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), tried to take action sooner, but the economic wing of the conservative Christian Democrats (their senior partner in the government coalition) and with parliamentary group leader Ralph Brinkhaus at its helm were against it.

The CDU has always been concerned that if meat industry practices were addressed, changes would also have to be made elsewhere. Rheda-Wiedenbrück also happens to be located within Brinkhaus’ constituency.

But Tönnies has always been smart enough not to rely solely on a CDU network. His deceased brother Bernd Tönnies was said to have had close ties to Klaus Matthiesen, who used to be agriculture minister for the state of NRW. When he was Germany’s economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD also visited the Tönnies plant. That visit came just as a debate about cheap labor from abroad had been rekindled, with the media writing about "forest people” who were prostituting themselves for work and spending the night in tents. Tönnies was able to convince Gabriel that voluntary pledges were sufficient for the meat industry.

Inhumane and Epidemiologically Risky

But that could change now as a result of the coronavirus. In a recent session of parliament, Labor Minister Heil announced that the outbreak would have consequences. A few days later, Merkel’s special cabinet for addressing the coronavirus crisis decided he should come up with draft legislation. The labor minister said that current practices led to inhumane treatment of contract workers and represented a significant epidemiological risk.

Heil plans to submit his draft legislation to Merkel’s cabinet before the end of July. The legislation could then be presented to parliament for a vote later this year after it returns from its summer break.

If passed, it would mean that only actual staff employees could butcher and process the meat. As it stands now, that legislation would not be justified on the basis of occupational health, but rather under trade law. Staff working in Heil’s ministry believe that would be the best way for ensuring that the legislation could hold up in German and European courts.

Labor Minister Heil also intends to put an end to the crammed conditions in the accommodations and is planning to introduce minimum standards for "mobile workers.” In addition, employers like Tönnies would no longer be able to make excuses about not knowing who works for them or where those people live.

This part of legislation would apply not only to plant and factory workers, but also to seasonal workers. It would apply to slaughterhouses, to shipyards and to agricultural operations that rely on imported temporary workers. Germany’s agriculture minister is still opposed to that plan, arguing that the situation with seasonal workers is different. But one of the subcontractors’ tricks is labeling Romanians or Bulgarians destined for slaughterhouses as seasonal workers.

It is expected that the Christian Democrats will go along with the legislation. Federal Economics Minister Peter Altmaier of the CDU is also tired of having to play down the dirty methods used by factory butchers. "Contract work is a necessary and appropriate instrument when, for example, a company receives a large order and needs short-term reinforcements,” he says. "But it should not be the rule as it is in the meat industry.”

Even Klöckner says, "Delegating responsibility to subcontractors is a root evil." She is also particularly annoyed by the fact that Germans are all for animal welfare and good working conditions in polls, but nobody wants to pay for it. Germany also stands alone in a European Union comparison when it comes to its consumer behavior: No other country in the EU experiences meat-price dumping to the same degree.

But the change hasn't come yet. On Thursday, a local branch of the Lidl discount supermarket in Rheda-Wiedenbrück had pork belly from a label supplied by Tönnies on sale on Thursday for 4.90 euros a kilo instead of 4.99. Meanwhile, competitor discount supermarket Aldi was offering chicken legs from "Meine Metzgerei,” also a brand for its Tönnies-produced products, for 2.72 euros a kilogram.