Poultry researchers at the University of Georgia are partnering with a team from Kansas State University to study how to effectively control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the nation's meat and poultry processing facilities.
The study seeks to protect meat plant workers and their surrounding communities from the spread of COVID-19 through practical solutions. The research is funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Harsha Thippareddi, John Bekkers Professor in Poultry Science at UGA, and Manpreet Singh, poultry science professor and interim head of the UGA Department of Food Science and Technology, are co-directors of the project along with A. Sally Davis, an assistant professor of experimental pathology in the Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine. Thippareddi and Singh provide extensive poultry experience and industry connections from the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and, with backgrounds as food safety specialists, will lead the grant’s industry outreach efforts.
A key objective of the project will be verifying the effectiveness of many of the approved cleaners and sanitizers for inactivating SARS-CoV-2 during plant processing and sanitation operations.
“Because there have been a number of outbreaks among employees in meat processing plants, there is always a perception that food or meat can be contaminated as well,” said Thippareddi. Frozen chicken wings imported to China from Brazil in August tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, he said. “This is a potential issue and we need to know the answers to what the risks to humans are if the coronavirus is present in food, and will it survive in the food or will it be destroyed during cooking and other food processing operations?”
Using Kansas State’s Biosecurity Research Institute, a high-containment research facility, researchers will study various potential contamination methods for meat and poultry, how long the virus survives on meat products, how various storage and preparation methods influence the infectivity of the virus and what product-treatment methods can be used to mitigate the virus on food products.
"Nationally and internationally, many facilities that produce meat and poultry products have been temporarily closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks," said Davis, Kansas State’s project director of the grant. "This has put a major strain on food production, limiting the amount of meat and poultry on grocery store shelves and disrupting food and feed supply chains across the globe. Research is necessary to understand why SARS-CoV-2 is such a problem in meat and poultry processing environments and how we can mitigate the problem."
While animals, such as cattle, swine and chickens, do not carry the virus, infections with SARS-CoV-2 are primarily thought to occur by exposure to microdroplets in the air generated by infected workers.
“The ultimate goal would be for us to better understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus — if at all — can be transmitted through meat and poultry and through contact surfaces in poultry plants,” Singh said. Thippareddi added that “people working in meat processing plants may have the illness and, if it is aerosolizing, the virus can get onto the meat. If it is on the meat, it can get to people. All the poultry processing plants are taking preventive measures to stop the spread of the virus, because if you can prevent people from getting the virus and keep the virus from being aerosolized, you can prevent it getting onto the food.”
The team will evaluate potential sources of exposure and determine the amount and the longevity of infectious virus that is present during and after meat processing and packaging activities. Researchers seek to identify, develop, validate and deliver practical cleaning and disinfection strategies, in addition to developing mathematical models to predict and reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 exposure in meat and poultry processing facilities.
The project will also rely on input from an industry advisory board composed of senior level directors of food safety and plant operations at Hormel Foods, Smithfield Foods, National Beef Packing Company, Cargill Protein North America, JBS USA, Wayne Farms, Jennie-O Turkey Store, Tyson Fresh Meats and Costco Wholesale.
Thippareddi and Singh will conduct site visits at various meat and poultry processing plants to evaluate current processing methods and to lead discussions with processors on COVID-19 mitigation strategies, develop new food safety training materials based on the needs of meat processors of varying sizes, conduct web-based trainings based on the research outcomes of the project, and assist in publishing the research findings.
“The goal is to provide guidance to the meat-processing industry in the form of science-based best practices,” Singh said.
For information on the UGA Department of Poultry Science, visit poultry.caes.uga.edu.