Food Safety in the Time of COVID-19: Is meat safe?

Several very large beef, pork and poultry slaughter plants have shut down over recent weeks due, at least in part, to COVID-19.  This has led to a disruption in the supply chain. Is meat and poultry that we find in the grocery store still safe to prepare and eat? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the USDA all maintain that the COVID-19 illness does not appear to be a foodborne illnessThe coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is a respiratory virus. If a person inhales contaminated air droplets, generally from an infected person coughing or sneezing, the virus can settle in the lungs and cause a respiratory illness.

Salmonellosis, on the other hand, is a foodborne illness. When you are sick with salmonellosis, it means that you have eaten food or drunk water containing live Salmonella bacteria and those bacteria have infected the gastrointestinal tract, making you feel sick to your stomach and possibly giving you diarrhea. You can you avoid getting food poisoning from meat and poultry that you find in the grocery if you follow standard food safety steps.  What does this mean? It means:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw meat. Wash cutting boards after preparing raw meat. Don’t wash your meat!
  • Separate raw meats from other foods such as salad vegetables.
  • Keep raw meat and poultry cold, in a refrigerator set to 40°F or below. It’s best to place raw meat on a plate or in a pan on the lower shelf of the refrigerator to protect meat juices from spilling onto other items.
  • Cook meat and poultry to proper temperatures. There is research evidence that cooking to proper temperatures will destroy virus particles that may also be on the meat surface.

Why are meat processing plants shutting down over the virus? Meat slaughter and fabrication is a very labor-intensive process. Unlike other food processing that is often highly automated and mechanized, animal slaughter and meat fabrication rely on many trained individuals working close together to process product for the marketplace. Meat is produced under daily inspection, with either USDA or state meat inspectors in the plant every day to help ensure that the meat and poultry that is processed is wholesome. Where meat plants are shutting down, it appears to be to help ensure worker health, not over concerns that meat products may be unsafe. Stay well and food-safe, Barb