K-State Researchers Study Ways to Mitigate COVID-19 in Packing Plants

Kansas State University researchers involved in a USDA-funded project to protect meat plant workers and their surrounding communities from the spread of COVID-19. From left: Randy Phebus, Sally Davis, Valentina Trinetta, Sara Gragg and Daniel Vega. Not pictured are Jeanette Thurston, Erin Schirtzinger and Yunjeong Kim ( Kansas State University )

A $1-million USDA grant, along with an additional grant from the state of Kansas, will allow a team of Kansas State University researchers to study how to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in U.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. The project involves researchers from K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Agriculture.

According to a K-State release, 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 study will verify the effectiveness of many of the approved cleaners and sanitizers for inactivating SARS-CoV-2 during plant processing and sanitation operations, the release said.

"Nationally and internationally, many facilities that produce meat and poultry products have been temporarily closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks," A. Sally Davis, an assistant professor of experimental pathology in the College of Veterinary Medicine and project director of the K-State grant, said in the release. "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." 

COVID-19 infections are primarily thought to occur by exposure to infectious micro-droplets in the air and contaminated surfaces. Researchers will investigate all potential sources of exposure and will determine the amount and the longevity of infectious virus that is present during and after meat processing and packaging activities.

"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," Davis said.

Their goal is to identify, develop, validate and deliver practical cleaning and disinfection strategies, while determining mathematical models to predict and reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 exposure in meat and poultry processing facilities. 

In addition to Davis, the team includes 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 will also utilize input from an industry advisory board 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, the release said.

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. 

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