Philip Lymbery | Covid-Infected Exports to China: Why Meat Should Be Tested for Virus
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Covid-Infected Exports to China: Why Meat Should Be Tested for Virus

Container cargo freight ship in China | Credit: Nikada

News has broken over the past few days that China has detected the presence of the Covid-19 virus on packaging of frozen Argentine beef, German pork and Indian cuttlefish.  As a result, China is imposing safeguards, testing and import bans to control the spread of the virus.

This action to protect against reintroduction of Covid-19 began after officials in Tianjin, one of the country’s largest ports, linked an infection of a warehouse worker to frozen pork knuckle imports from Germany.

China believes urgent measures are needed to prevent the import of the virus, which has been largely contained domestically. A seafood market in the central city of Wuhan is widely believed to be the origin of this Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 1.3 million people worldwide.

Despite reports from the World Health Organisation (WHO), advising that the risk of catching Covid-19 from frozen food is low, China has repeatedly detected the virus on product packaging.

Covid-19 Outbreaks in Meat Plants

Through the summer, I wrote repeatedly to both the EU and UK food safety authorities urging them to test meat for contamination with the Covid-19 virus.

This was in the wake of serious outbreaks of Covid-19 affecting workers in meat plants and slaughterhouses in several countries, including the UK. Hundreds of workers tested positive for Covid-19 at UK meat plants in Anglesey, Wrexham and West Yorkshire. Major outbreaks also occurred in Germany, France, Spain and the US.  These outbreaks of course represent serious issues of worker safety and public health, with much of the focus being on the conditions for workers and their potential to spread Covid-19 amongst themselves and their communities.

What I could see was that much less attention has been focused on the possibility of meat becoming contaminated in these highly infected slaughterhouses.  See my September blog.

The presence of Covid-19 has been detected on frozen pork | Credit: Photosiber

Recent research published by Dale Fisher and colleagues from the National University of Singapore has found that the Covid-19 virus can survive on frozen meat and fish for up to three weeks, prompting warnings that contaminated food imports could have the potential to cause new outbreaks of Covid-19, demonstrating a clear potential public health risk. 

The paper comes against the backdrop of otherwise unexplained outbreaks in several countries, including Vietnam, New Zealand and China, where the virus had previously been eradicated.

The possibility is not new: food safety agencies have admitted the possibility of meat contamination. Meat processing facilities are cold, damp indoor environments and provide ideal conditions for the Covid-19 virus to linger and spread. There is evidence that coronaviruses can survive at low temperatures on stainless steel, for example, a common environment in abattoirs, for up to 28 days.  Not surprisingly, the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) has sought more information on the potential for persistence of SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, on foods traded internationally as well as the potential role of food in the transmission of the virus.

Calls for Testing

I wrote independently to the Executive Directors of both the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to raise the question.  I asked, in view of the potential risk, what measures they will be taking to test meat products for the home market and for export. While responding politely, the agencies have so far dismissed my concern. According to their view, the essential point is that Covid-19 is a respiratory disease, not a food-borne disease, and so meat is very unlikely to be a vector for the spread of the coronavirus – even if it comes from a slaughterhouse where large numbers of workers have been infected.   

The fact is we simply do not know how much of a role contaminated meat is playing in radiating the virus into the wider retail meat sector.

The latest research from the University of Singapore suggests that more attention is needed and, at the very least, testing of meat for contamination before shipping would be a wise precaution.

That is why I have repeated my call to both the FSA and EFSA to take the precautions necessary including testing of meat products for viral contamination.

With Covid-19 proving so persistent and having such profound effects on society, every sensible precaution should be taken to close down possible routes of transmission, which surely includes testing meat to make sure that we’re not putting contaminated food in our shopping basket.

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