The USDA granted $1 million to Kansas State University researchers to study how to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the nation's meat and poultry processing facilities.
The study "Translating SARS-CoV-2 Research Into Practical Solutions For The Meat And Poultry Processing Industry" seeks to protect meat plant workers and their surrounding communities from the spread of COVID-19. Researchers from K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Agriculture will lead the project.
The Kansas National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility Transition Fund will contribute more than $300,000 to this research.
The project, which begins this week, will verify the effectiveness of many of the approved cleaners and sanitizers used during plant processing and sanitation operations. The research group hopes to have preliminary findings in a few months. While the project is two year’s long, the researchers plan to release findings and advice incrementally in the form of guidelines for industry and peer-reviewed papers.
"Nationally and internationally, many facilities that produce meat and poultry products have been temporarily closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks," said Dr. Sally Davis, professor of experimental pathology in the College of Veterinary Medicine and project director of the K-State 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."
Davis said infections with SARS-CoV-2 are primarily thought to occur by exposure to infectious micro-droplets in the air and contaminated surfaces.
"We are investigating the conditions within meat and poultry processing environments, such as low temperatures, relative humidity, increased air movement and workers being in close proximity to one another, to help identify areas and surfaces that are at high risk for contamination and spread of infectious SARS-CoV-2," Davis said.
The team will evaluate potential sources of exposure and determine the amount and longevity of infectious virus that is present during and after meat processing and packaging activities. The team seeks to identify, develop, validate and deliver practical cleaning and disinfection strategies, plus develop mathematical models to predict and reduce the risk of the virus’ exposure in meat and poultry processing facilities. The project will rely on other researchers and an industry advisory board.
"Our advisory board will be regularly updated on research progress," said Jeanette Thurston, Ph.D., director of the Food Science Institute and co-investigator on the project. "We will communicate with them in real time to make sure we are on the right track with our research and recommendations, and ensure that our findings are rapidly deployed across the processing sector."
This research will also examine the surfaces of carcasses and or raw meat portions for their potential for transporting infectious virus particles between workers as they move along a continuous processing line in a meat or poultry manufacturing facility.
"Authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control state that there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted by contaminated food products," Davis said. "It is generally thought that infections are transmitted by infectious aerosol droplets from coughing, sneezing, our talking being inhaled or contaminating mucous membranes (such as the eyes), or by someone touching a virus-contaminated surface and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth."