Should meat be tested for Coronavirus?

Hundreds of workers have tested positive for Covid-19 at meat plants across the world

New Study Shows Virus Survives on Contaminated Meat

Over the past few months there has been much in the news about serious outbreaks of Covid-19 affecting workers in meat plants and slaughterhouses in several countries, including the UK. Hundreds of workers have tested positive for Covid-19 at UK meat plants in Anglesey, Wrexham and West Yorkshire. Major outbreaks have also occurred in Germany, France, Spain and the US.

These outbreaks 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.

However, much less attention has been focused on the possibility of meat becoming contaminated in these highly infected slaughterhouses.

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. (Dale Fisher, Alan Reilly, Adrian Kang Eng Zheng, Alex R Cook, Danielle E. Anderson, 2020. Seeding of outbreaks of COVID-19 by contaminated fresh and frozen food – BioRxiv)

Covid-19 Outbreaks

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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