Summer may be grilling season, but while we’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are looking to buy and cook food and host gatherings in different ways. World health authorities are putting an emphasis on safe food handling (which includes frequent hand washing), social distancing, and mask wearing. All of these practices are noted as being potentially helpful in minimizing germ transfer, including transmission of the novel coronavirus. Still, while we look to plan meals, many of us may also be concerned about the safety of the meat that is on the shelves in our local markets. Or, we may wonder about the safety of the meat dishes on menus at our favorite drive-thru or takeout places. If your “meat-inquiring mind” wants to know more about how safe our meat supply is, read on.
Food safety regulators speak out
In the midst of the pandemic, many media outlets have been reporting on the health status of farmers, ranchers and meat-processing-facility workers. With this news coverage, questions have arisen about the novel coronavirus being transferred to consumers via meat products and packaging. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization, and many other international health organizations have affirmed repeatedly for many months that the coronavirus is not transmitted to people via food products, and their confidence includes foods that may have been handled by potentially infected food system workers. The primary method of transmission of the coronavirus is via person-to-person contact that promotes the spread of respiratory droplets (the body’s carrier of the coronavirus).
The FDA’s most recent statement (issued on June 24, 2020) notes, “The United States understands the concerns of consumers here domestically and around the world who want to know that producers, processors and regulators are taking every necessary precaution to prioritize food safety especially during these challenging times. … There is no evidence that people can contract COVID-19 from food or from food packaging. The U.S. food safety system, overseen by our agencies, is the global leader in ensuring the safety of our food products, including product[s] for export.”
How is meat safely produced?
Another important safety point to assert from the FDA is that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in conjunction with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), are working to support food worker safety during this tough time. The two agencies have issued guidance for manufacturing facilities, including food facilities, specific to controlling the spread of COVID-19 between workers. This guidance is distinct from and in addition to the food safety requirements that all U.S. food manufacturing facilities must follow to ensure food safety.
The USDA has a stringent set of rules that work to assure the high safety standards of meat products, and meat processors must follow these rules in order to operate as legal and federally recognized establishments. These rules include the stipulation that slaughter facilities cannot conduct slaughter operations if the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) personnel are not present. Specifically, FSIS is responsible for ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of meat, poultry, and processed egg products and ensures that they are accurately labeled. Only federally inspected establishments can produce products that are destined to enter interstate commerce or be exported to foreign countries. These rules need to be followed in order to avoid citations from inspectors and the halting of operations.
As we’ve explored previously, it’s also important to note that the novel coronavirus has relatively poor survivability on surfaces (less than three days), and thus there is a low risk of spread from food products (including meat) or packaging that is shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, and frozen temperatures.
What can you do to stay safe?
The meat products available on our grocery store shelves and at restaurants are safe, but what else can we do to exercise caution? While there is no evidence that the coronavirus is transmitted via food consumption or food packaging, there are some additional measures that should always be undertaken by consumers to safely consume meat products, regardless of the pandemic:
- First, when you bring your meat home, be sure to properly store the meat in your freezer or refrigerator until you are ready to use it. When preparing food at home (or before you eat your food at a restaurant), it is also extremely important that you wash your hands. Hand washing is a top safe food handling practice. For food prep at home, before and after touching raw meat, clean hands reduce the chances of transmitting microbial contaminants (e.g. viruses and bacteria). In addition to your hands, be sure to keep your cooking surfaces clean and use a separate cutting board for meat products.
- Checking the temperature of meats as you cook them is essential for food safety and must be done with a food thermometer. While we all may wish we had “X-ray meat vision,” even a professional chef cannot tell if meat is done just by looking at it. Cooking temperatures vary for different types and cuts of meat; a table of safe cooking temperatures can be found here. Additionally, another tidbit of information that can further allay “meat fears” is that the novel coronavirus is sensitive to heat, so cooking meat to safe minimum temperatures will also help eliminate any live virus.
On top of trusting federal regulations that work to keep our food system safe, remaining mindful of how to avoid contaminating our foods unintentionally is important for all of us prepping meals at home and eating on the go. We hope that these food safety insights will be helpful to you as you plan your next BBQ or venture out to your favorite drive-thru or takeout restaurant.