Coronavirus Victoria COVID-positive Cedar Meats worker turned away from testing twice before first abattoir case detected: inquiry

On April 17, he said, a staff member was sent home sick from the meatworks but that person was unable to get a coronavirus test because they “didn’t have symptoms to warrant a COVID test”.

The worker was turned away from testing twice before returning a positive result after insisting for a third time that a doctor screen him for COVID-19, the inquiry heard.

Cedar Meats in Brooklyn.Credit:Jason South

Mr Kairouz said he was first alerted to a positive case among his staff on April 27. He said that case came to light after another staff member severed his thumb at work and went to the Sunshine Hospital for treatment on April 23, where he developed a cough and was tested for the virus.

Two dozen staff at Sunshine Hospital were later sent home after the Cedar Meats worker tested positive. A nurse at the hospital, who had treated the worker, later tested positive.

Mr Kairouz strongly disputed comments made by then Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos at the time that the cluster had been handled “absolutely perfectly” by the department.

He said the greatest failure in the handling of the outbreak was a Department of Health and Human Services directive for staff to get tested at a multitude of testing sites, rather than setting up a single testing clinic at the abattoir.

Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel says cases weren't being managed properly, with some even lost, in Victoria's contact tracing system.

Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel says cases weren’t being managed properly, with some even lost, in Victoria’s contact tracing system.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“My one wish is that DHHS were able to test on-site because we would have been able to get on top of the outbreak,” he told the inquiry.

“We knew how difficult it would be to communicate with 350 workers of such diverse backgrounds and language barriers once they left business. Time was of the essence. It would have ensured that detailed and more accurate information was obtained from our staff through the use of Cedar managers and interpreters. Unfortunately, DHHS could not organise this.”

Mr Kairouz also said DHHS delays in getting on top of the outbreak meant one of his staff members ended up infecting nine others in their family.


“It was a devastating situation on a personal level,” Mr Kairouz told the inquiry. “It was a very confusing time for us all. It was a very difficult time. We were harassed and seen to have done something wrong and that was extremely hard for everyone.”

The Age has previously reported that Cedar Meats management ignored reports of workers who believed they may have had coronavirus in mid-April as “rumour and innuendo” weeks before health officials shut down the abattoir.

Between April 13 and 17, Cedar Meats and Labour Solutions, the labour-hire firm that provides more than half of the Cedar Meats workforce, had daily phone calls about a small group of workers, some of whom were off on sick days, who told management they believed they had COVID-19 or believed their coworkers were infected.


Workers were offered face masks only on April 29, when Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton ordered the closure of the business.

Since the outbreak, Mr Kairouz said he had invested nearly $1 million in measures to protect staff, including thermal cameras, which take the temperature of staff entering the abattoir.

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, told the inquiry COVID-19 cases were lost and duplicated during the second wave as Victoria’s contact tracing system was overwhelmed.

He said it was impossible to determine whether the contact tracing systems in other states in Australia would have been overwhelmed like Victoria had they been hit with hundreds of new infections a day.

“It all comes to down preparation,” Dr Finkel said.

“There is no question Victoria’s system was overwhelmed. But it’s very hard to be precise on that. Would another state collapse at 100 cases, per day sustained, per million?

“I know many of the states are training to deal with something like 50 cases per day per million without losing the ability to manage those cases. That’s not easy to do, but we do believe it is achievable.”

Dr Finkel, who has conducted a review of the nation’s contact tracing systems, also said Victoria should continue to aim for risk minimisation, rather elimination and avoid widespread lockdowns and “all their negative consequences”.


“I have no doubt risk minimisation is the way to go. Risk minimisation is based on constant preparation, well-trained workforces and modern technology to prevent outbreaks before they occur,” he said.

The Age revealed last week that the Victorian Health Department allowed workers at the Cedar Meats abattoir to return to work while waiting on COVID-19 tests during contact tracing efforts in May.

Under the current rules, contacts of close contacts of infected people are told to immediately self-isolate – if those rules had been in place earlier in the year, the plant’s entire 350-strong workforce likely would have been told to quarantine after it was closed by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.

In its submission to the inquiry, the company described evidence given by former health minister Jenny Mikakos to another parliamentary inquiry in May as “factually incorrect”.


Ms Mikakos told the committee the company took several days to hand over information about who visited the site.

Ms Mikakos, who resigned in September, wrote to Mr Kairouz in August explaining her evidence.

She acknowledged the company handed over timely information, but said contact details were sometimes out of date or lacking full names, meaning the process took longer than anticipated and hampered contact tracing.

A Health Department spokeswoman said last week the department stood by the evidence it gave to the inquiry.

The Cedar Meats outbreak, which prompted a WorkSafe inquiry, put the spotlight on Victoria’s contact tracing system during the first wave of COVID-19 infections. About 10 days after the abattoir was closed, the Andrews government announced a $20 million rapid-response team to handle high-risk outbreaks.

Premier Daniel Andrews was asked about Ms Mikakos comments, which described the handling of Cedar Meats as “absolutely perfect” on Wednesday, but declined to comment.

“I’m not seeking to correct those or add to them,” Mr Andrews told reporters.

“All I’d say to you is that’s a long time ago, there’s a political process going on at the moment down in Melbourne on these issues. I’m going to wait for the report of that parliamentary inquiry, that’s the appropriate thing to do.”

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John Dee abattoir suspended from exporting meat to China due to chloramphenicol discovery

A fifth Australian abattoir has been suspended from selling beef to China, as trade relations continue to sour.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud confirmed Chinese authorities suspended Queensland abattoir John Dee from selling its meat to China.

It came as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged to tear up any state agreements with foreign governments that it deemed not in the national interest.

But Mr Littleproud said there was nothing malicious about the ban, which he said was imposed after a “naturally occurring element” called chloramphenicol was found in the meat supplied to China from John Dee.

“It’s quite legitimate what China has raised and the owners have acted very swiftly to trace where that element has come from,” he said.

Mr Littleproud said the Agriculture Department was working with officials in Beijing to rectify the situation as soon as possible.

“Chloramphenicol can occur naturally in some stockfeed,” Mr Littleproud said.

“It’s quite legitimate and I have no reason to think otherwise.”

Relationship needs to change: meat industry

Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive Patrick Hutchinson understood the detection of chloramphenicol in meat processed at John Dee was an isolated incident.

He said chloramphenicol was an illegal drug in the beef industry and had not been detected in Australia since residue testing started a decade ago.

Mr Hutchinson said, despite Australia’s free trade agreement with China, it had been a difficult year for many exporters including those who sold barley and wine and minerals to China.

“We need to do something about the relationship and very soon,” he said.

However, Mr Hutchinson said the value of beef exports to China from Australia had remained high in 2020.

“We are only down 8 per cent on a record year and have exported more in seven months than we did for all of 2017,” he said.

Fifth abattoir suspension

Mr Littleproud estimated the John Dee abattoir would typically sell about 30–40 per cent of its beef to China.

The abattoir, based at Warwick, south-west of Brisbane, claims to be Australia’s oldest single family-owned abattoir.

Earlier this year, four Australian abattoirs were suspended from selling beef to China over labelling breaches just days after Beijing slapped hefty tariffs on Australian barley.

China also accused Australian winemakers of dumping wine and launched an investigation into anti-competitive behaviour.

Despite the earlier bans on Australian abattoirs China purchased a record amount of red meat from Australia this year.

NSW exporter doesn’t believe suspension is retaliation

One of the four processors suspended in May is hopeful that it will be relisted by China next month to enable the resumption of its exports.

Northern Cooperative Meat Company chief executive Simon Stahl does not believe this latest suspension is direct retaliation by China in response to any commentary out of Canberra this week.

“I’d really want people to be very cautious in actually drawing that parallel because I think the two are unrelated,” Mr Stahl said.

John Dee has been contacted for comment.

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Fifth Australian abattoir John Dee suspended from exporting its meat to China

A fifth Australian abattoir has been suspended from selling beef to China, as trade relations continue to sour.

A spokesman for Agriculture Minister David Littleproud confirmed Chinese authorities suspended Queensland abattoir John Dee from selling its meat to China.

It came as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged to tear up any state agreements with foreign governments that it deemed not in the national interest.

John Dee, based at Warwick, south-west of Brisbane, claims to be Australia’s oldest single family-owned abattoir.

Earlier this year, four Australian abattoirs were suspended from selling beef to China over labelling breaches just days after Beijing slapped hefty tariffs on Australian barley.

China also accused Australian winemakers of dumping wine and launched an investigation into anti-competitive behaviour.

Despite the earlier bans on Australian abattoirs, China purchased a record amount of red meat from Australia this year.

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Coronavirus patient from Melbourne abattoir has annual leave deducted by employer instead of sick leave

Melbourne abattoir worker Eh Choe, 38, has been home sick with coronavirus for the past two weeks, isolating in a separate room of his house away from the rest of his family.

But despite having to isolate at home, Mr Choe told 7.30 his time off work has been deducted from his annual leave, rather than his sick leave.

He works at the JBS meat-processing plant in Brooklyn in the city’s west, which has been linked to 82 cases of the virus.

“I am drained from having COVID-19,” he told 7.30 through a Karen (a language spoken in Myanmar) translator.

“Even though I am feeling a bit better, my energy is not back to 100 per cent.”

Mr Choe works in the cold room at the factory, often moving between warm and freezing temperatures throughout the day, so when he started to feel a fever, he thought nothing of it at first.

“The inside of my workplace is cold, but I would get sweaty when helping other people or working outside. My body temperature would go up and down while I was working,” he said.

“When I got home at night after work, I got a fever and took medicine. I felt my temperature going down a bit after.”

When he went back in to work at JBS on July 13, the company had COVID-19 tests on site.

A sign outside JBS says 'stay home if unwell'.
Eh Choe works at the JBS meat-processing plant in Brooklyn, Melbourne.(ABC News: Simon Winter)

“I had a bit of a cough at that time, so I took the test, and the next day the result came stating that I am positive.”

He told 7.30 that despite being diagnosed with COVID-19 and needing to stay home and recover, his work did not deduct his two weeks from sick leave.

“I do have sick leave, I have more than 100 hours of sick leave. I saw [on my payslip] that they did not count my days off from my sick leave but instead it’s from my annual leave,” he said.

“Usually we need to fill in a form first before they allow us to take annual leave. But this time they told me I can take days off from work without filling in the form.”

Despite Mr Choe’s experience, JBS said that any worker who tests positive to the virus is entitled to take sick leave.

In a statement, the company said: “There has been confusion among our workforce about the type of leave employees are entitled to take.”

Since being contacted by 7.30, JBS has offered to change Mr Choe’s annual leave to sick leave.

JBS is just one of several meat-processing facilities in Melbourne where COVID clusters have emerged.

JBS’s Brooklyn factory was ordered to shut down for two weeks. The company said it had deep-cleaned the factory and tested all workers at the site.

‘Insecure work is driving the second wave’

A woman wears black glasses and a blue jacket.
Sally McManus would like to see pandemic leave available for all workers.(Supplied)

Workers in essential industries like aged care, transport and manufacturing, who cannot work from home and are often on casual contracts, along with migrants and those with English as a second language, are being hard hit in this second wave.

Sally McManus from the Australian Council of Trade Unions says workers who do not speak English are “so vulnerable to being exploited, exposed, getting infected”.

“If you’ve got the coronavirus, you are certainly sick and it is sick leave, not annual leave,” Ms McManus said.

“It’s those workers that are now becoming the fodder really for the coronavirus pandemic and they’re being sent out to be the essential workers and they’re paying the price.”

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has implored workers who feel unwell to stay home, and the Government has offered one-off payments of $1,500 for workers without paid sick leave who are required to isolate with COVID-19.

“Too many people are still going to work when they have symptoms,” Mr Andrews said today.

However, Ms McManus said many workers in insecure work may be reluctant to isolate.

“The issue is this: it’s that people who are insecure workers who don’t have sick leave also can be sacked at will,” she said.

“As a community, we need to support those people staying at home, because what they’re doing is they’re actually saving lives and they’re also saving jobs by not going to work and spreading the virus.”

She is adding her voice to the growing call for paid pandemic leave for all workers.

“The obvious thing we need to do [is] to take away that financial penalty that people are currently facing when they weigh up whether they should get tested or whether they should stay at home,” Ms McManus said.

“Insecure work is driving the second wave that’s occurring. The holes it leaves in our defences, the fact that workers don’t have paid sick leave in the middle of a pandemic, is what is spreading the virus.”

Federal Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter told 7.30 in a statement that the Government would look into the issue.

He said the Government would continue working with stakeholders, including the ACTU, “to identify data and evidence illustrating where circumstances may arise where a lack of financial support for a workplace absence could manifest as a contributing cause of workplace transmission of COVID-19, particularly in Victoria”.

“The Government will consider that evidence when it’s made available before deciding next steps.”

Multicultural hub a coronavirus hotspot

A man in a suit speaks at a lectern.
Wyndham Mayor Josh Gilligan said the council was cooking meals for vulnerable community members who were self-isolating.(Supplied: Josh Gilligan)

Mr Choe lives in the city of Wyndham, west of Melbourne. It is a sprawling multicultural hub that its 27-year-old mayor Josh Gilligan is very proud of.

“You will never find a more diverse local government area than Wyndham,” he said.

“You’ve got the second-fastest-growing city in the nation here … 48 per cent of the 275,000 residents that we have are migrants.

“We’ve got over 100 countries represented in our city.”

It has also become known as a COVID-19 hotspot, with the highest number of total confirmed cases in Australia.

The diversity of residents, many of whom do not speak English as a first language, is presenting unique challenges in getting health messages across in the fast-moving environment of a pandemic.

Along with posters and pamphlets in different languages, the council has taken to social media to get the word out on public health messages.

“We’ve been using Facebook, which auto-translates into a whole series of languages across our city,” Mr Gilligan said.

The council is also using its commercial kitchen to cook meals for vulnerable members of the community who are self-isolating.

“This council is delivering 600 meals a week, 250 hampers that are comprised of staples to hundreds of families, some of which have COVID-19, who cannot leave their home because they are in lockdown,” Mr Gilligan said.

“They don’t have the support networks like most of us do, whether that be family born here, as an example.

“We’re making sure that the families in these homes don’t have to choose between making sure they have food to live on, versus leaving the home knowing that would be contrary to strict health guidelines about staying at home.”

Whole family gets coronavirus

A man wears a pink jacket.
Khun Ree has been in isolation at home with coronavirus.(Supplied: Khun Ree)

Another local resident, Khun Ree, 65, tested positive to coronavirus around two weeks ago and has been isolating at home. He has been mostly relying on a weekly Burmese radio show on SBS to keep informed about the virus.

He too caught the virus via a local abattoir.

“My daughter’s husband works in a meat-packaging factory. He got it from there,” Mr Ree told 7.30 through a Burmese translator.

“He didn’t realise what it was. He felt sick, took paracetamol and went back to work. After it happened twice, we drove him to have a test.

“Our whole family went for tests and we tested positive.”

Members of a family sit and stand around a dining table
Khun Ree’s entire household contracted coronavirus.(Supplied: Khun Ree)

Mr Ree lives with eight other family members across three generations. The whole household of nine contracted the virus from his son-in-law who works at the meat-processing facility Somerville Retail Services (SRS) in Tottenham. There have been 106 cases of COVID-19 linked to the facility.

When 7.30 contacted SRS, the company declined to comment.

Watch this story tonight on 7.30.

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Coronavirus cases revealed in Victorian paramedic and cluster of Melbourne abattoir workers

The number of coronavirus cases in Victoria continues to inch up as a paramedic tests positive to the virus and health authorities investigate a cluster at a meat processing plant.

The unnamed Melbourne meat processing plant has been temporarily closed after eight employees tested positive to coronavirus, including three in the past 24 hours.

The ABC understands the facility is an abattoir for the export market in Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

At a press conference on Saturday morning, Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said the facility was being thoroughly cleaned and all contacts of the coronavirus cases were being traced.

“I’m also advised that there are no current concerns about food safety,” Ms Mikakos said.

Ms Mikakos did not provide the name of the meat processing facility.

“The advice that I’ve received is that a facility will be named if there is a risk of community transmission occurring,” she said.

Ms Mikakos said seven new cases had been confirmed across the state since Friday, bringing the total to date to 1,371.

One of the new cases was thought to be due to community transmission.

“The fact that we’ve had seven new cases overnight does demonstrate that the situation is still incredibly fragile and that it is important for everyone to still continue to follow the restrictions around staying at home as much as is possible [and] to only leave your home [in the] very limited circumstances that are permitted,” she said.

Paramedic tests positive to coronavirus

An ambulance in Melbourne's CBD.
An Ambulance Victoria paramedic has been diagnosed with coronavirus, forcing five of their colleagues to go into quarantine.(ABC News: Margaret Burin)

Following Ms Mikakos’s press conference, Ambulance Victoria confirmed that a paramedic had returned a positive test for coronavirus.

A spokesperson said there was nothing to indicate that the paramedic had acquired the virus from patient contact.

“The paramedic concerned is recovering in isolation and is doing well,” the spokesperson said.

“As a precaution, five paramedics who came into contact [with them] are also in isolation.

“This does not mean they have COVID-19; rather, it reflects our conservative approach to the safety and wellbeing of our staff and patients.

“Our strict infection control measures mean paramedics wear Personal Protective Equipment (masks, gloves and protective eyewear) to every case to protect themselves and the community they care for.”

New testing sites opened

A nurse testing someone through a car window.
Coronavirus testing criteria in Victoria has been expanded to find cases that have no known origin.(AAP: Bianca De Marchi, file photo)

Ms Mikakos said eight new testing locations opened on Saturday around Melbourne.

“We now have 22 shopping centre or retail sites open across Victoria, and eight new ones have opened today at Box Hill Central, Eastland, Greensborough Plaza, Stockland Point Cook, The Glen, Victoria Gardens Shopping Centre, Westfield Southland and Westfield Knox,” she said.

Ms Mikakos said the majority of test results were available after 24 hours. She added that 129,000 tests had been conducted in total.

“I’m very heartened by the uptake in the numbers that we’ve seen in recent days as we have opened more locations and we are making it much easier for people to go and get tested,” she said.

The tests are free and people just need to bring along their Medicare card or identification if they do not have one.

The Minister said she was tested earlier in the week after feeling unwell and worked from home. The test was negative.

About 6,000 swabs were collected from people across Victoria on Friday and more than 30,000 people have been tested since a “testing blitz” began on Monday.

“I do want to encourage Victorians to go and get tested if they have mild symptoms, that is cold or flu-like symptoms,” she said. “No matter how mild your symptoms, they may indicate you do have COVID-19.”

Victoria Police issued 30 fines over Friday for alleged breaches of the coronavirus restriction orders.

Police said seven people gathering for a birthday party were among the recipients.

Restrictions to continue until at least May 11

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday that Australians deserved an “early mark” on coronavirus restrictions and National Cabinet would bring forward a key meeting on relaxing the restrictions to May 9, a week earlier than scheduled.

Despite this, Ms Mikakos said the State Government still intended to review Victoria’s restrictions on May 11.

“We’ve made it clear that that is the point in time, when the current state of emergency expires on the 11th of May, to make a reassessment,” she said.

She also defended her Government’s stricter restrictions in comparison to other states such as Queensland.

“There has been some variations in approach, but Queensland has had I think 4 per cent community transmission, compared to Victoria’s 10 per cent,” she said. “Every state’s circumstances will vary.”

Meat processing industry faring ‘extremely well’

Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) chief executive Patrick Hutchinson said the coronavirus cluster in the Melbourne abattoir was regrettable but “not entirely unexpected” given the industry employs more than 100,000 people.

“AMIC has provided our members with detailed guidelines on preventative and preparedness measures against COVID in our workplace,” Mr Hutchinson said.

“Our processing industry has fared extremely well in comparison to our international counterparts, which is a reflection of the lengths our industry has gone to protect our workforce and community, as well as the strong response in Australia to effectively flatten the curve.

“We do not anticipate that we will see in the Australian industry the same unfortunate situation in the US, Brazil, and other countries, and do not expect there to be any food shortage concerns or livestock supply issues.”

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The Virus: We could be in for an ‘early mark’ on physical distancing measures

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