Is Meat Safe During Pandemic?

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is a group of 20 nutritional experts. They advise the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services on the government's guidelines for healthy eating. Those guidelines impact nursing homes, school lunches the military and more.

This month they gave their "strong support for [lean] meat as a foundational food." That includes some red meat. This is excellent news for both the meat industry and people who enjoy eating it! But, is it safe to eat meat right now?

We have all heard about meat shortage in the U.S., and other countries, as meatpacking plants have become hotbeds of COVID-19. In fact, the UK, Germany, Spain and France have all had plant closures. Meatpacking plants are the perfect environment for the virus to spread.

"Factories and, in particular, indoor areas which are cold and damp, are perfect environments for coronavirus to linger and spread," said Prof. Lawrence Young, of Molecular Oncology at the Univ. of Warwick. "Virus-containing droplets from infected individuals are more likely to spread, settle and stay viable." Additionally, loud machinery makes people need to shout to be heard, spreading the virus more widely.

"When you have people standing right next to each other working heavily - because of course this is a difficult job — and breathing heavily — you have a chance for spreading virus from just one infected individual to many that are in close proximity," said Tara Smith, professor of epidemiology at Kent State Univ.

The CDC has suggested spacing people out more, placing Plexiglas between workspaces on the conveyor belts and giving people more PPE. People on the production lines were sickened and passed it on to people they lived with, who then passed it on to others. Additionally, several USDA safety inspectors have also died because of the conditions in the plant being cold and damp.

OSHA has been concerned about the meatpacking industry for a long time. Because of deregulation in the last twenty years, they say that the plants have "serious safety and health hazards … including dangerous equipment, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals." Other critics agree that the COVID-19 pandemic didn't create the problems; it made them more visible.  

Plants need to take more action to protect workers and the food supply chain. But do they need to do more to protect us? The answer, it seems, is probably not. Experts say that catching the virus from meat is highly unlikely. It isn't impossible, but it's very improbable.

"The virus that causes COVID-19 cannot grow on food," according to the CDC. "Although bacteria can grow on food, a virus requires a living host like a person or an animal to multiply… Currently, there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads to people through food. However, it is important to safely handle and continue to cook foods to their recommended cooking temperatures to prevent foodborne illness."

Steak tartare may be more dangerous than it usually is. It's never a safe dish. There is a minuscule chance that it may be riskier now, but it's highly improbable the virus could linger long enough on meat to make you ill.
June 29, 2020

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