Germany’s Billionaire ‘Sausage King’ Faces Coronavirus Reckoning


·         Outbreak at meatpacking plant adds to global industry’s woes

·         Some 640,000 people locked down again amid calls for change


By Stefan Nicola and Megan Durisin, Bloomberg

June 26, 2020


Clemens Toennies, known to Germans as a brash billionaire, is turning into a public villain after one of his meat-processing plants triggered the country’s biggest single coronavirus outbreak.


Prosecutors and politicians are scrutinizing his business model after more than 1,500 people — mainly poorly-paid contract workers from eastern Europe who live in cramped housing — tested positive, prompting authorities to close the plant. It’s the latest challenge for Toennies, 64, who has previously weathered antitrust scrutiny and criticism for racist comments.


After failing for years to improve conditions for animals and workers, the man who also leads a German soccer club and has rubbed shoulders with Vladimir Putin is now facing a backlash for triggering a lockdown for 640,000 people, just as Europe’s biggest economy restarts. Even in a country that loves bratwurst and schnitzel, some say his comeuppance was bound to happen.


“There’s a lot of anger brewing,” said Sonja von Zons, a Green Party politician who’s running for mayor of Rheda-Wiedenbrueck, where the shuttered pork plant is based. “Mr. Toennies for years rejected responsibility for what has been a destructive system for animals, workers and the environment. We’re fed up.”


The outbreak has caused a political stir in a country lauded for its virus response. Germany’s governing parties want to speed up regulatory changes to improve working conditions and hygiene. Some politicians are considering asking Toennies, dubbed the “sausage king” by German business weekly WirtschaftsWoche, to foot part of the lockdown bill.


After virus outbreaks at slaughterhouses in countries including the U.S., Australia and Brazil, the German spike is adding to bad news for the meat industry. Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner said Friday that Germany needs to “take a close look” at the meat production chain.


Toennies, whose fortune is rooted in industrializing Germany’s meat production, has a net worth of more than $2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Closely-held Toennies Holding, which he controls along with a son and a nephew, sends 21 million pigs a year into factories that churn out sausage, salami and pork chops. His company didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.


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