Concerns have been raised around the potential impact on meat prices as a result of plans to test workers at processing plans for Covid-19. 

Cormac Healy of Meat Industry Ireland said that if there are delays in getting test results, then that could impact on the prices paid to farmers.

He was appearing at a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19, which has also heard concerns around what Sinn Féin said is an unacceptably low level of unannounced inspections.

Under plans announced by the Government earlier this week, six thousand workers at meat processing plants will be tested on a weekly basis for Covid-19. 

This is something the industry itself says it supports. 

But Cormac Healy of Meat Industry Ireland told the Oireachtas Committee that the turnaround times for test results will have to be quick.  

He said any delay in testing could lead to disruption of the production lines which would mean markets could not be supplied and that would impact prices. 

He was responding to the Independent TD, Carol Nolan, who said the crisis must not be used to cut the price of beef for farmers, bringing them back to the position they were in last year. 

Meanwhile, the Chief Executive of the Health and Safety Authority, Sharon McGuinness, told the committee that 39 inspections have been carried out at meat processing plants since March 

Management were given prior notice for all but nine of these inspections something that Sinn Féin's David Cullinane said was unacceptable.

But in response to questions from Fine Gael's Jennifer Carroll McNeill, Ms McGuinness said the notice given was short, as factories were contacted on the morning of an inspection or the night before.  

The SIPTU trade union has said that members in the meat processing Industry remain petrified of contracting the disease.

Divisional Organiser Greg Ennis told the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that they must walk a tightrope every day and attend work even if they are unwell.

He said that it is now beyond doubt that the meat processing industry contains unrivalled vectors for the transmission of Covid-19.

Mr Ennis pointed out that nine out of ten workers do not have access to sick pay and he said this was a significant contributory factor to the spread of the virus.

He asked why the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) did not begin inspections at meat plants until late May and why there are few unannounced inspections at plants.

Mr Ennis claimed the practice of "hot bedding" is taking place among meat plant workers. He said he had been advised in recent days that up to 40 migrant meat plant workers are sharing rooms/accommodation in a town in Co Offaly.

He told politicians that legislation is needed to ban sub-contracting and bogus self-employment within the meat industry.

He alleged that there are sole traders working in the industry with employers avoiding PRSI contributions, depriving the State of tax revenue.

Mr Ennis said the Government's announcement of weekly blanket testing of workers in plants is welcome but he said there must be rapid result turnaround times within 24 hours.

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He said there is fear of retribution for workers in the meat industry.

"I have never seen an industry where workers are so reluctant to come out front and talk to the media or to union officials about their concerns and that is a scandal," he said. 

He said focussing on the current outbreaks over the last eight days, he has yet to be able to produce someone who will talk to the media. 

Mr Ennis also told TDs about some workers who were tested positive and brought to the CityWest facility in May, but who did not give contact tracing information because they did not understand what they were being asked or they were afraid they would put another worker out of the workplace.  

General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Patricia King said it is "untenable" that the HSA, which has the powers to inspect workplaces and order closures where appropriate, is not notified when workers contract Covid-19.

She said all the indicators are that the HSA does not want to be notified and does not want the task.

Ms King said she met Tanaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar two weeks ago who said he would consider the points being made in relation to the HSA.

She said if the HSA is in charge of the protection and the prevention of injury to workers but is not notified about Covid-19 cases and does not carry out inspections, "we will arrive in all sorts of a mess".

The Committee heard from the Chief Executive of the Health and Safety Authority, Sharon McGuinness who said that 39 inspections have taken place in meat plants since March. 

She said that around 30 of these inspections were announced and 9 were unannounced. 

Ms McGuinness said that since the end of June they have been going into plants unannounced. 

She was being questioned by Sinn Féin's David Cullinane who said he would not take any comfort in that response. 

The HSA also told the committee that there had been no prohibition or improvement notices served on the meat plants. 

Deputy Cullinane called on the HSA to commit to carry out unannounced inspections in the sector. 

Ms McGuinness said the majority of the inspections will be unannounced, adding that the HSA deals with health and safety and many of the issues being raised by the deputy are not within its remit. She said this was a public health matter and public health determines the actions and responses in the sector. 

Fianna Fáil Kildare North TD James Lawless told the committee that if someone trips on a floorboard and injures themselves on a piece of machinery in a factory that is notifiable to the HSA.

However, he said that if someone presents with coronavirus that is not.

Deputy Lawless said because the disease is not listed as a notifiable illness under health and safety legislation, the plethora of sanctions and inspections that would usually "kick into play" as part of the framework does not apply.

Sinn Féin's Louise O'Reilly told the committee that there is general agreement that if you contract Covid-19 in the workplace it is a workplace injury and it should be treated as so.

Deputy O'Reilly said she had published a piece of legislation to deal with this and she said she would welcome support for it.

Labour's Duncan Smith asked about HSA inspections at meat plants and if unions were aware of a "tidying up" approach if there was knowledge of an impending inspection.

ICTU's Patricia King said the HSA should be sitting on this and employers should be working on the basis that the "knock can come on the door any time day or night".

Mr Ennis said he took a call from one worker at a meat plant who went home to eastern Europe to visit family in May and when they returned to Ireland to self-isolate "the employer said if you self-isolate there won't be a job for you in two weeks time".

Mr Ennis said enforcement and policing is needed through the HSA.

Mr Ennis said a taskforce with all parties is needed as this "is the only hope we have in beating Covid in the meat industry".

Nora Labo of the Independent Workers Union said the majority of migrant workers have been living and working here for five years and therefore should not be seen as migrant or transient workers.

Mr Ennis said there are some meat plants where six or seven different languages are spoken and necessary information is not given to the workers in their native language which he said is a problem.

Ms Labo said a lot of translation work including finding forms for illness benefit or Covid-19 payments was being carried out by people like her.

Additional reporting Aisling Kenny, Maggie Doyle, Fiachra Ó Cionnaith