The novel coronavirus appears to have affected employees in meat-related sectors more than many other food categories.
The problem is a global one. In the US, for example, meatpacking facilities have been running at 95% average capacity compared to 2019. In South America, Brazil’s meat processing industry is another to have been hit by multiple outbreaks.
And in Europe, Germany has also observed significant disruptions of late. Last month, around one-quarter of employees at Müller Fleisch’s slaughterhouse in Baden-Württemberg tested positive for COVID-19.
Around the same time, Münster Administrative Court supported a decision to shutter a slaughterhouse operated by meat processor Westfleisch in Coesfeld, after 171 employee tests for the Sars-CoV-2 virus returned positive.
And most recently, Tönnes abattoir in Gütersloz closed its doors for an indefinite period, according to German media outlet DW. More than 1,000 employees tested positive for the virus.
To limit the spread, local authorities have also suspended all schools and daycare centres in the region. Around 7,000 people in the area have been put in quarantine.
In response to rising infection rates at these facilities, ‘many people’ have raised the question if coronaviruses can be transmitted via meat products, according to the German Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).
Theoretically possible, but unlikely
Based on the current state of knowledge, the independent institution – which sits under the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany – says transmission via meat products is unlikely.
It is, however, theoretically possible. “Theoretically, contamination of meat or meat products with coronaviruses is possible during slaughter or during meat cutting and processing,” noted BfR on 19 June.
Yet the institute is not aware of any SARS-CoV-2 infections via consumption of meat products or contact with contaminated meat products, and said it is not believed that livestock such as pigs or chicken can be infected with SARS-CoV-2.
Therefore, according to the current state of knowledge, these animals cannot transmit the virus to humans by this way.
“Coronaviruses cannot multiply in or on food; to do this, they need a living animal or human host,” explained BfR President Professor Dr Andreas Hensel.
“There are no indications for coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2 that humans can be infected by consumption of food such as meat and meat products. If there is any new and scientifically valid information on this topic, we will examine and assess it, and communicate this immediately.”
Protecting against foodborne infections
The institute advised those wanting to protect themselves from foodborne infections to ensure they cook meat and poultry sufficiently and evenly before eating.
Coronaviruses could be transmitted from an infected person to sausage and meat if hygiene rules are ignored, it warned, either via contaminated hands, or by direct sneezing and coughing.
However, BfR stressed that the hygiene rules and protective measures that usually must be observed in abattoirs and meat cutting facilities minimise the risk of contamination of meat and meat products with pathogens, which also applies to SARS-CoV-2.
Concerning retail environments, meat and meat products are usually protected from sneezing and coughing by ‘splash guards’ at the counter, which minimise the risk of contamination.
A ‘smear infection’ – whereby food is touched shortly after contamination and the virus is then transmitted via the hands to the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes or mouth – is theoretically possible. Yet coronaviruses have ‘relatively low stability’, and a smear infection would only be possible during a short period after contamination.
“According to the current state of knowledge, the transmission pathway by consuming meat products does not play a role in the current outbreak of SARS-CoV-2,” reassured BfR.
“Furthermore, the risk of foodborne infections can be reduced if meat and poultry are heated throughout to at least 70°C for at least two minutes before consumption, or until the meat juice trickling out is clear and the meat has turned to a whitish colour (poultry), a greyish-pink colour (pork) or a grey-brown colour (beef).”