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Chow Line: Questions on Meat Safety and Supply
By: Tracy Turner, Ohio State University - 05/20/2020

Is it safe to eat food or meat if it has been handled by someone who has COVID-19?

According to food safety and meat science experts, the risk of acquiring COVID-19 through the handling of food or meat is extremely low. In fact, there is no evidence at this time that COVID-19 can be transmitted through consumption of contaminated foods, said Lyda G. Garcia, an assistant professor of meat science with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

COVID-19 transmits person-to-person through droplets that are produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. The virus is most often transferred to another individual when droplets directly reach their nose, mouth, or eyes, or through close contact such as a handshake. Traditional food safety measures, especially proper hand-washing and cooking meat to the correct internal temperature, should always be followed.

Because many consumers have similar questions as yours regarding meat safety--and meat supply--amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Garcia, who is also an Ohio State University Extension meat specialist weighs in here. OSU Extension, CFAES' outreach arm, includes a focus on fresh meat processing, so Garcia, who is also working directly with livestock producers and meat processors addressing needs specific to each segment throughout the COVID-19 pandemic through the CFAES Lean on Your Land Grant Food Supply Chain Task Force, answers some important meat-related questions below.

Can I get sick by handling food or meat packages if the COVID-19 virus has contaminated the surfaces?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be contracted through food or meat packages. In addition, according to the FDA, you do not need to wash food containers to prevent COVID-19 infection. You shouldn't wash meat in the sink, nor should you spray or dip food products into chemicals commonly used for household cleaning. Rather, you should always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content after handling packages or leaving a retail establishment. Be sure to disinfect food preparation areas according to chemical manufacturer's recommendations.

Will meat plant closures due to workers contracting COVID-19 cause meat shortages?

The meat industry is devoted to maintaining the supply chain. Although some plants have temporarily closed and others have slowed production, the meat industry began preparing for interruptions in the supply chain once COVID-19 began to spread globally. Currently, the industry does not foresee any interruptions in the supply chain. Those meat processing plants that have closed are deep cleaning, beyond traditional cleaning and sanitizing measures, as well as working with state and local health departments to reopen as soon as it is safe. Consumers should not panic-buy or stockpile meats. Rather, they should maintain traditional buying patterns.

What is the meat industry doing to maintain the supply chain?

While temporary closures of restaurants and other food service establishments have caused overall total meat sales to decline, restaurant and food service meats are being transferred to meet the needs of retail grocery stores. Additionally, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) is working with the meat industry to help ensure that the supply chain remains intact and safe. Consumers can help the meat industry maintain consistent supplies by avoiding panic-buying or stockpiling.

What are meat plants doing to help their workers remain healthy during the pandemic?

Social distancing has become the new buzz phrase. Part of the reason some meat plants are reducing production is to institute and enforce social distancing. Most plants are staggering shifts, breaks, and lunchtimes, along with installing tents to allow workers to social distance. They're also taking workers' temperatures and completing overall worker health assessments at the beginning of each shift, and workers are required to wear masks, gloves, and eye protection. Plastic dividers are also being installed when social distancing is not possible. Workers that do become ill will still receive pay while they recover.

What is the USDA-FSIS doing to maintain a safe meat supply?

Mandatory meat inspection is the law. The USDA-FSIS is working with the meat industry to ensure that meat inspectors are present at all inspected processing facilities. If an inspector becomes ill, a replacement or relief inspector is sent to fulfil the duties. In addition, the USDA-FSIS is working with state and local health departments to reopen closed plants to make sure all workers are safe.

"The meats industry, the USDA, and farmers are trying to maintain the supply chain," Garcia said. "Please understand everyone is trying to make sure safe, healthy food is available to consumers."

"Meat plants that have closed are testing employees for COVID-19, performing deep cleanings in the plants, instituting safety measures including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), promoting social distancing, as well as working with state and local health departments to reopen as soon as possible. Consumers can help by avoiding panic-buying and stockpiling. By working together, we can make sure there is plenty for everyone."

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

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