Meatpacking plants have been frequent outbreak hot spots of the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S. As of June 16th, over 25,000 processing plant employees from 238 plants in 33 states had been infected with at least 91 deaths according to tracking data from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
Today China suspended all imports of poultry from Arkansas-based Tyson Foods and products arriving in Hong Kong were being seized on arrival in the country. Germany also reported a huge outbreak with over 1,000 workers infected at an abattoir owned by Tönnies, the country’s largest meat-processing company. In the U.K. a poultry processing plant in Wales reported 75 cases among its workers today. All of the companies are quarantining their remaining workers to try and contain the outbreaks.
These outbreaks, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, have resulted in widespread criticism of working conditions at the plants where employees often work in extremely cramped conditions where physical distancing is impossible. Although these plants briefly close for cleaning after big outbreaks, undoubtedly much of the meat that has been handled by people infected with Covid-19 will have made it into the food chain. But is there any risk from eating this meat?
“Meat is probably not a big risk,” said said Angela L. Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist in the faculty of the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. “There is no evidence of food borne transmission,” Rasmussen added.
So already this seems unlikely, but let’s run through possible scenarios. The majority of us eat meat that is cooked for very good reason that has little to do with SARS-CoV2 and everything to do with other dangerous microbes such as salmonella, which can be present in chicken and worm-like parasites which can reside in pork. The good thing is that these potentially harmful microbes are effectively killed by heat and pose no risk to human health when dead.
For this reason, the CDC recommends that meats are cooked to minimum temperatures before eating. They are 145°F for beef, pork, lamb and fish, 160°F for anything involving ground beef, like burgers and 165°F for all poultry. The World Health Organization reports that heating at 56°C (133°F) for 15 minutes substantially reduced the infectivity of the virus, so any meat cooked to recommended temperatures should have no viable SARS-CoV2 left even if it is on raw meat.
But, what about meat which might not be fully cooked, such as rare steaks? Well, if we assume that SARS-CoV2 has for some reason come into contact with your steak, it will be on the outside of the meat and even a quick flash in the pan should kill any viruses or bacteria present as high temperatures are still reached on the outside when searing meat. Is there any reason to be concerned about quickly-cooked or even raw meat, for example a steak tartare?
“Probably not, though no specific evidence about that. There’s no indication that anyone has contracted SARS-CoV-2 from eating any kind of uncooked food, including rare or raw meat,” said Rasmussen.
However, it may be that the packaging of the meat is of a greater concern with SARS-CoV2 potentially living for several days on surfaces, possibly more in refrigerated environments where raw meat is typically stored during transport and sale. Rasmussen however thinks that the time taken to transport meat to consumers makes this unlikely.
“Any virus on the packaging is likely to be non infectious by the time meat makes it to supermarket shelves,” said Rasmussen, adding that hand hygiene is likely to reduce any already extremely low risk from transmission of virus on packaging.
There are many valid reasons to cut down on meat consumption, such as the environment, cost and health. But, the risk of getting Covid-19 from eating meat processed in meat packing plants is exceptionally low and should not be a cause for concern.