COVID-19 and the US Meat Supply

By Kristi Eaton

Across the United States, meat-processing facilities have been deemed “hot spots” for COVID-19 cases, places where a large percentage or number of employees test positive for the virus.

In Oklahoma, Texas County, located in the Panhandle and home to Seaboard Foods, a pork processing plant, is near the top in terms of numbers in the state, according to The Associated Press. The plant is located in Guymon, the county seat and most populous city in the county. The AP reported recently that Texas County had 851 cases, including at least 440 at Seaboard Foods, which has about 2,700 employees. The number of cases will likely change.

“We knew from watching testing efforts in other areas of the country that when more tests are conducted, more positive tests come in. We were prepared for that, and the test results reinforce that broad employee testing is the right thing to do to help keep our employees safe and for our employees to understand their COVID-19 status and that of their peers,” the company said in a statement, according to The AP.

But what happens to the meat at the plants in which people are testing positive. Is there a chance it could be transferred to someone else in the handling process?

Jacob Nelson, meat processing specialist at Oklahoma State University’s Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center, said there is no evidence to demonstrate that meat products can be a source of the coronavirus.

There are federal protocols for food safety plants for unforeseen hazards, he adds. Those protocols include segregating the affected product; performing a review to determine the acceptability of the affected product for distribution; taking action, when necessary, to ensure that no product that is injurious to the health enter commerce; and to perform or obtain a reassessment of the food safety plan.

Nelson does note, however, that the virus is a particle that is physically transmitted across space and time, so in theory, a virus particle could come in physical contact with the surface of a meat product.

He said constraint of virus particles is the best method to alleviate the potential for contaminated meat. “There are multiple ways to accomplish this, and facial coverings seems to be the most effective,” he said in an email interview. “Facial coverings have been a standard practice in the RTE sector of the meat industry for many years, even long before the phenomenon of Covid-19.  And the normal cooking of raw meat products will destroy the virus if it happens to be present. So contracting Covid-19 from eating meat products is highly unlikely…perhaps even impossible. I don’t know if we’ve established that knowledge yet in the industry, but my intuition says it is very unlikely.”

He added that food seems to not be a source of COVID-19.

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