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24 March 2021

Tailor-made: the Belgian meat industry’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic

In 2020, the world was hit by COVID-19. Industries suffered worldwide, but the Belgian meat industry withstood the pandemic rather well – thanks to a well-prepared contingency plan that was adapted along the way. A fine example of the industry’s resilience and flexibility. An analysis by Michael Gore, Managing Director at FEBEV, the National Belgian Federation of slaughterhouses, cutting plants and wholesalers for pork, bovine, sheep and equidae.

Getting prepared: creating a COVID-19 contingency plan

Let’s go back to the beginning of 2020. At that time, in Europe, we knew very little about COVID-19. Who could have thought that it would lead to a worldwide lockdown?

Nevertheless, early on, even when there was little information available, the Belgian meat industry started developing a COVID-19 contingency plan: what if the disease would emerge in our region? How would we deal with it in our companies?

We created a plan of action, with a 5-level risk analysis with control measures to deal with these risks.

A new situation, a familiar approach

Working in the meat industry, we are used to dealing with emergency situations and making risk analyses linked to food safety and animal welfare. This situation, however, was completely new to us.

We did have scenarios on how to deal with the flu in companies – more specifically: what to do when people are absent, what hygienic measures do you take to stop the spread of the disease, how do you ensure the continuity of your activities?

That was the cornerstone of our script: what to do when a disease enters a company?

Our contingency plan was even used as an example for other industries

Close interaction with companies and the FASFC

On 13 March 2020, Belgium went into lockdown. Companies called us to ask what they should do. The script turned out to be so functional that we could disseminate it quickly and ask the companies to implement it.

Each day brought new problems and new insights. We constantly adapted our script to respond to these challenges.

We worked closely with the companies, and we also interacted with the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC), who also has operatives working in our establishments.

They also checked whether the companies were complying with the basic principles concerning COVID (hygiene, masks, …). Whenever we were informed of issues, we informed the businesses and gave hints and insights on how to improve their systems. All in all, our companies dealt well with the instructions we gave them.

Meat industry as a source of inspiration

Up to now, we are one of the few industries with such an operational script. The meat industry is faced with specific challenges. We have so many interactions between different people (breeders, transporters, producers, buyers), so we had already included these kinds of control measures in our initial plan.

FEBEV was the single point of contact for the government for all animal-related industries. We assimilated all of the concerns communicated to us from the field, relayed them to the government’s economic task force, and integrated them in our contingency plan.

Moreover, we opened up our plan to other industries. The government even used it as an example, a source of inspiration for other industries.

Our COVID-19 approach is an illustration of the way we think and act: tailor-made

Characterized by agility and flexibility

Agility is what characterizes our meat production companies. Being flexible in one of the most regulated industries might seem contradictory – but we work with perishable products, so companies are forced to act quickly. FEBEV acts likewise. When a problem occurs, we act. Our companies’ proactive and flexible way of working is reflected in our own approach.

Let’s not forget: at the start of the pandemic, Belgium was still fighting African Swine Fever. Instead of resignation, they showed resilience – in a difficult context, full of challenges. I’m proud of the way our companies dealt with the situation, thought along with us, and helped us adapt our script. This interaction was truly key.

Added value for customers

Our industry’s COVID-19 approach is an illustration of the way our companies think and act: tailor-made. Our companies think about what their customers need and respond to their needs.

What we have learned from this pandemic has an added value for our customers. It reassures them that our companies deal with crises and challenges without compromise… It’s ingrained in the way we work.

The efforts our companies make show their flexibility and their resilience. Every day, they give everything they’ve got to offer a product that delights the customer.

What we have learned from this pandemic has an added value for the customer.

Creating a reliable framework

The societal context is constantly changing. Meat no longer only needs to be safe, it needs to be produced in an animal-friendly way – and now we have to make sure that it’s produced respecting COVID-19 measures.

Time and time again, other societal elements play a role in how people appreciate a certain product… that, above all, needs to be tasty.

Consumers need to be satisfied with the intrinsic qualities of the product; and, in addition to that, we create a framework that ensures that customers can rely on us.

Flawless production and food supply

We’ve managed the crisis well. Witnessing what happened in neighbouring countries, where more and more slaughterhouses had to deal with outbreaks of COVID-19, we were already a few steps ahead: we thought about transport, about requirements for organized housing for the workers, and the pandemic’s influence on the company’s processes…

By taking certain steps in advance, we gained time. To date, in 2021, the number of contamination clusters and their impact on our industry has remained relatively small. We did have some outbreaks, but we managed to guarantee flawless production and food supply.

Nevertheless, last summer, there was a major outbreak in one of our slaughterhouses. But the case helped us gain insight into how the virus spreads – and, eventually, it led to an ongoing research project to study the spread of COVID-19 in our production environment through mathematical modelling techniques and to see to what extent our industry might be more susceptible to the spread of the virus.

Thanks to this research, we have even created a structural framework for companies eager to invest in improving ventilation techniques or new equipment.


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