KANSAS CITY — A team of Kansas State University researchers is using a $1 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture – and an additional grant from the State of Kansas – 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, "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. It involves researchers from K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Agriculture.
As part of the study, $330,000 from the State of Kansas National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility Transition Fund will be used for research in K-State's Biosecurity Research Institute, or BRI, at Pat Roberts Hall. The BRI is a high-containment research facility.
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.
"Nationally and internationally, many facilities that produce meat and poultry products have been temporarily closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks," said A. Sally Davis, an assistant 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."
Ms. 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.”
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. 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 SARS-CoV-2 exposure in meat and poultry processing facilities.
Joining Ms. Davis on the research team are food safety faculty from K-State's Food Science Institute, including Randall Phebus, co-project director and professor of animal sciences and industry, and Jeanette Thurston, director of the Food Science Institute and co-investigator on the project. The project also will rely on input from an industry advisory board.
"Our advisory board will be regularly updated on research progress," Ms. Thurston said. "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."
The industry advisory board is 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.
Bonnie Rush, dean of K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine, said K-State, known as the "Silicon Valley of biodefense," is the ideal place to conduct this vital research.
"This is an advantageous collaboration between the College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Agriculture," she said. "It combines our expertise in the study of viruses, our high-containment research facility in the BRI and our national experts in food safety."
Ernie Minton, dean of the College of Agriculture and director of K-State Research and Extension, said COVID-19 has hit the agricultural industry and its workers hard.
"We certainly felt the impact when COVID-19 hit our meat processing plants in Kansas and across the nation this spring," Mr. Minton said. "In April, nearly 5,000 workers in U.S. processing plants became infected, causing plant closures, a backlog of animals waiting to go to market, higher feed costs, lower market prices, and a scarcity of meat and poultry in some areas. It's a tremendous privilege to receive USDA support and work with a team of top academic and industry leaders to find solutions to help us avoid this type of problem in the future."
Collaborating with the K-State team are co-project directors from the University of Georgia poultry science department, Harsha Thippareddi and Manpreet Singh, who will provide extensive poultry experience and industry connections and lead the grant's industry outreach efforts. Valentina Trinetta and Sara Gragg, food safety faculty from the Food Science Institute, are co-project directors.
Co-investigator Anke Richter, a public health-focused operation research specialist at the Naval Postgraduate School, will lead the risk assessment driven by mathematical modeling. Co-investigators Yunjeong Kim and Erin Schirtzinger in the K-State College of Veterinary Medicine and the Food Science Institute's Daniel Vega round out the project team.
Food safety top of mind for US, other consumers
According to a new study from the Beijing-based Mars Global Food Safety Center that surveyed more than 1,750 people in the US, UK and China, more than half of respondents (52%) feel that food safety is a top three global issue – and 77% think it’s a top 10 global issue.
Food insecurity has only been exacerbated by COVID-19, and 73% of respondents believe the novel coronavirus will impact the viability of the global supply chain and 71% believe it will have impact on global access to food. These consumers think about food safety and security as much as climate change (39%) and pollution (38%).
“New food safety threats, like those posed by COVID-19, are constantly emerging through a combination of factors including global warming, increased globalization of trade, as well as changes in agriculture practices and food production,” said David Crean, Mars’ chief science officer and vice president of corporate R&D. “We believe everyone has a right to safe food and it’s also our responsibility to share our knowledge — 82% of survey respondents expressed their desire to learn more — expertise and tools to enable safe food for all.”