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USDA funds K-State research on COVID-19 in meat processing plants

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Published: Sep. 15, 2020 at 6:10 PM CDT
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MANHATTAN, Kan. (WIBW) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supporting research at Kansas State University looking at COVID-19 in meat and poultry processing facilities.

Kansas State University says a team of researchers is using a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture with an additional grant from the State of Kansas, to study how to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, in America’s meat and poultry processing facilities.

K-State said the study, “Translating SARS-CoV-2 Research Into Practical Solutions For The Meat And Poultry Processing Industry," looks to protect meat plant workers and their communities from the spread of COVID-19. It said the research involves researchers from its College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Agriculture.

According to K-State, as part of the study, $330,000 from the State of Kansas National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility Transition Fund is to be used for research in K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute at Pat Roberts Hall. It said the BRI is a high-containment research facility.

K-State said a key objective of the project is verifying the effectiveness of approved cleaners and sanitizers for inactivating COVID-19 during plant processing and sanitation processes.

“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.”

Davis said infections with COVID-19 are primarily thought to happen by exposure to infectious microdroplets 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,” Davis said.

According to K-State, the team will look at potential sources of exposure and determine the amount and longevity of infectious virus that is present during an after meat processing and packaging activities. It said the team is looking to identify, develop, validate and deliver practical cleaning and disinfection strategies, as well as develop mathematical models to predict and reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 exposure in meat and poultry processing facilities.

K-State said joining Davis on the research team are food safety faculty form its Food Science Institute, which includes 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. It said the project also will rely on input from an industry advisory board.

“Our advisory board will be regularly updated on research progress,” 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.”

According to K-State, the industry advisory board is made up fo 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.

K-State said collaborating with the team are co-project directors from the University of Georgia poultry science department, Harsha Thippareddi and Manpreet Singh, providing extensive poultry experience and industry connections and lead the grant’s industry outreach efforts. It said Valentina Trinetta and Sara Gragg, food safety faculty from the Food Science Institute, are co-project directors. It said 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. It said co-investigators Yunjeong Kim and Erin Schirtzinger in the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Food Science Institute’s Daniel Vega round out the project team.

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