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914 or 69? Tuna Giant Thai Union Distorts Massive Coronavirus Outbreak at Samut Sakhon Canneries

Provincial health officials contradict world's largest tuna canner, which claimed only 69 workers contracted coronavirus

Workers process skipjack tuna at a Thai Union Frozen Products packaging plant in Samut Sakhon
Workers process skipjack tuna at a Thai Union Frozen Products packaging plant in Samut Sakhon.

Thailand’s Public Health Ministry confirmed more than 900 workers at a group of fish canneries owned or affiliated with Thai Union Group tested positive for the coronavirus even as the world’s largest tuna processors peddles the story that only 69 were infected.

Opas Kawinpong, director-general for the Department of Disease Control, and Labor Minister Suchart Chomklin both confirmed that 914 employees of Pataya Food Industry Co. in Muang District of Samut Sakhon tested positive but Opas noted that the cases were included in previous daily reports, mostly in the 541 cases reported on Sunday.

Mostly migrant laborers, the infected employees were overwhelming majority asymptomatic.

Rather than focus on the negative number, Suchart said, people should look at the benefit the active testing is doing.

“Finding 500 new cases or more means we identify the carriers. If we don’t conduct pro-active tests, more people will get infected and the cycle of infections will never be stopped,” said the labor minister.

All the employees have been confined to the cannery owned by Thai Union Group and a guarded field hospital, Opas said. Both the company and health officials explained that the seafood – cooked at high temperatures and canned under pressure – are safe to eat.

Questions continue to swirl over the accuracy of Samut Sakhon’s numbers as the Thai Union Group has actively pushing the story that only 69 of its employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Thirapong Chansiri, president and chief executive of Thai Union, said the company has been conducting Covid-19 tests since the beginning of the second wave of the pandemic in early December, so far screening 23,630 of its 27,552 employees in Samut Sakhon.

“As of Jan. 5, 69 employees returned positive results from PCR tests,” Thirapong said in a statement.

However, Dr. Naretrith Khatthaseema, Samut Sakhon’s public-health director, not ony confirmed Wednesday’s 914 figure, but added that more than 1,000 workers at two other Thai Union canneries also have tested positive for the virus. He said the province’s report of 470 cases on Monday and 541 on Sunday stemmed from employees at two factories affiliated with Thai Union, the world’s largest canned-tuna processor.

Thai Union shares dropped 1.42% from the previous day’s close to 13.9 baht due to panic selling immediately after the announcement.

“We have comprehensive protocols in place in case of positive test results; these protocols include ensuring taking care of the affected employees while isolating them according to government guidelines, identifying and testing close contacts and deep cleaning of visited work areas,” Chansiri added. “It is very important to note that, due to the extremely small number of impacted employees, all Thai Union’s factories currently remain open and operational at capacity.”

This story has been updated to reflect when the 914 cases were reported