On The Likelihood Of Transmission Of SARS-CoV-2 From Contaminated Meat

Executive Summary

Citizens of countries that have fought off earlier waves of the COVID-19 pandemic rightly guard their (relative) freedom from COVID-19 fiercely. Remote and/or isolated communities, from small villages through to island nations such as those in the Pacific, many with limited resources to fight an outbreak, fear its introduction and need to focus intently on prevention. In these situations the effectiveness of handwashing and face masks at slowing infection spread are secondary to understanding the ways in which SARS-CoV-2 may be introduced to their communities. Even though many scientists and/or Government officials have attempted to downplay its significance, one area of increasing concern is the potential for the establishment of new clusters of infection via contaminated perishable food and especially fresh or frozen meat. This is especially pertinent as SARS-CoV-2 may remain infective on fresh meat at 4 degrees Celsius for over three weeks and for several years in frozen meat. It is agreed that in regions experiencing severe COVID-19 outbreaks this route of transmission is less likely a major contributor to its spread. Concentrating on just that misses the point, however. While the likelihood of being infected by SARS-CoV-2 from processed meat might be lower than other routes, and may be very low, the consequence of such infection for many communities around the world is so great that the scientific community must begin to acknowledge the veracity of this risk and begin to conduct the necessary research to develop risk mitigation. Until credible and replicable research is forthcoming, application of the precautionary principle is entirely appropriate.

I have been alerting readers to the risks around the geographic and temporal (over time) spread of SARS-CoV-2 from fresh and frozen meat contaminated by infected meat processor workers since it became known that these workplaces are centres of major outbreaks.

I have also ruminated for Governments to address these risks (note that I still have received no response to this letter).

All the while experts and Government officials have dismissed the risks with a blanket statement that “there is no evidence” that this represents a risk.

Recent research by a group headed by an Australian, Prof Dale Fisher, a senior consultant in the division of infectious diseases at the National University Hospital in Singapore, has shown that SARS-CoV-2 remains viable for at least three weeks at 4 degrees Celsius on the surface of processed prawns, salmon and pork, thus confirming the potential for this route of transmission.

Throughout this pandemic I have been prescient discussing risks with the COVID-19 pandemic, and about failings of Governments and their officials. That is not because I am especially brilliant or better informed. Obviously I am a complete outsider and only equipped with the knowledge that is public, and general knowledge and intuition from prior experience as a research scientist and biosecurity policy analyst.

Being an outsider is my greatest advantage for several reasons. I am not subject to intense group think by spending all of my time with other individuals necessarily focused on this one major challenge. More importantly, however, is the fact that I am entirely free of conflicts of interest: I have no colleagues who I want or need to stay “good” with (vital for future career progression due to peer review and input into publications and grant applications, or collaborations), I do not have to be concerned about relationships with industry (another important source of funding and considerable political power), I do not need to consider how an employer considers my comments will affect their business model (note universities are major stakeholders in international flows of people, especially students), I don’t need to be concerned at whether politicians will be annoyed with my comments (as those who have the final say over much grant funding and general funding for the sector and specific institutes), and perhaps most critically, I don’t need to be concerned for protecting my professional reputation within a field, generally within the academic community, and for my own security both financial and how I view my own contribution to the world.

I have none of these conflicts. I have no reputation to protect because I knew when I retired that those who remained would have the opportunity to write the history of my career in the way that they chose, and given that I had to deal with a number of sociopaths in Australia (which is what my old boss at Biosecurity Australia, Dr David Banks, was getting at in his farewell speech for me), they were always going to write that history in a manner that flattered them and detracted from me. (This began happening even before I retired, e.g. some reviewers of my Australian grant and fellowship applications inferred that they credited my early career success to my PhD supervisor – and likely some reviews were by he, himself – when in reality we were barely on speaking terms for the final crucial, and my most productive, 2.5 years of my PhD program.)

There are very many conflicts faced by the “experts” and these are very real and serious considerations. Of course how much they allow those conflicts to affect their opinions and/or how they choose to express those opinions will differ between individuals, but it must be said that science very definitely does select for political aptitude.

I often say that to succeed in science one has more to learn from the reality television show “Survivor” than in science journals, and with the perspective gained from 17 years of retirement from science I have found no better explanation for my own challenges to maintain a career – while I was an emerging leader in my field due to my ability to perform scientific research – is my lack of political aptitude. As will be abundantly clear from my writing at MacroEdgo, politics in all of its forms annoys me and I have little patience for it, and I have no problem with saying that it should have no place in science or how science is applied for the benefit of humanity.

I am a purist in this way and always have been. Human beings are political animals, however, and I have had to accept that it will never be possible to eradicate politics from any area of human endeavour. Nonetheless, I believe wholeheartedly that mankind benefits enormously when strong, persistent and effective measures are taken to minimise, in all of its forms, dysfunctional politics in science.

Now that I have set that background context to this discussion, I want to be extremely clear about the risks that I will discuss in this post.

In this discussion I am referring to the presence of SARS-CoV-2 inside of meat packaging, i.e. was on the surface of the meat as it entered food packaging, not on the external surfaces of the packaging. Of course the risks there are also relevant, but I agree with others that they are likely less because the outside surfaces of packaging are subject to harsher and more variable conditions which would act to inactivate the virus more rapidly. Moreover, to the extent that these surfaces can act as a means of transmission, they may be re-inoculated at any stage through the product cycle including immediately before an end consumer brings it into their home

I am also not referring to the issue of whether the meat has virus within its cells – in other words, in the event that the animal was carrying infection by SARS-CoV-2. This in itself is a very serious topic for discussion as the risks would be greater in this case. I have a paper in preparation on this particular issue.

Even though experts have stated that the risk of spread of SARS-CoV-2 within processed meats, including seafood, other white meats and red meats, is not substantiated by scientific observation and is considered very low risk, real world developments continue to progress so fast as to cast considerable doubt on these entirely unscientific statements.

First cutting boards in a food market in Beijing, used to butcher salmon imported from Europe, were associated with the emergence of a COVID-19 cluster. The significance of the finding is difficult to know with certainty. This led to China initiating a number of biosecurity initiatives including requiring attestations from exporters that their products are free from SARS-CoV-2 and surveillance of fresh and frozen food imports for the virus by PCR to detect the viral genome. The details of this surveillance program are not well understood and it is not clear whether some packaged products are opened and tested or whether just external surfaces of packaging are swabbed. Recently this surveillance led to the detection of SARS-CoV-2 in shipments of chicken from Brazil, a country experiencing severe pandemic, and 7 facilities have been banned from exporting product. Other countries have followed China’s lead in banning chicken imports from Brazil until a protocol is developed which provides the surety that China seeks.

At the same time, a new cluster in New Zealand – after the virus was not detected in the country for over 100 days – centred around a cold facility which handles imported frozen foods. Genomic testing has revealed that the strain of COVID-19 had not been detected in the country previously strongly suggesting that it is newly introduced. There have been no findings suggesting an alternate route of introduction for the virus.

Many experts who have discussed these risks previously, and even many who are studying these latest developments, have stated that they consider the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 with processed food to be very low. Even the Chinese scientist advising on China’s response to COVID-19 has said “let’s not exaggerate it”. New Zealand scientists also are mostly quick to suggest that they do not think that the latest cluster did come from imported food, even though their extensive studies have failed to reveal another likely cause. Post-event studies are difficult as testing for the virus in this environment is not conclusive as what I am discussing is the presence of the virus within packaging (and perhaps the workers consumed some product at home).

Now I realise that some will assume from my writing and my videos that I consider the risk of spread of COVID-19 with processed meats to be much higher than these experts.

Let me be clear – I do not disagree with the experts on the level of risk posed by this manner. I would prefer to refer to it as low rather than very low, but that semantic difference relates to how the receiver interprets the statement. After all, we are not talking about a strict scale linking the level of risk directly to a quantified level of probability. So the words chosen to describe the level of risk are as much about the desired affect on those receiving the message as it is about the actual level of risk.

The reality is that such statements lead the listener or reader to infer that because the risk is low (or very low) then it is not significant.

Even though I agree that the risk is likely to be low, it is not insignificant, not by a long way. That is because the “risk” that is being inferred in that statement is the likelihood of the event occurring, i.e. the probability that somebody consuming processed meat will be infected by SARS-CoV-2. But true risk in this context has a broader definition as it also encompasses the consequences that flow from that event happening.

To explain that in dramatic fashion, as I showed in my detailed video, one of the more credible views on how SARS-CoV-2 first infected humans was during the butchering and/or consumption of an infected original or intermediate host animal.

Obviously the consequences of SARS-CoV-2 jumping into humans was enormous (some times there are no words that seem to capture the full scale of what is being described).

Clearly the consequences of that event mean that the risk was high even though the probability of the event occurring was low. That is why so many are now talking about what needs to be done to ameliorate the risks of a similar event occurring again, such as stopping wet markets and/or the trade in wild animals, and I bet that many others, at a moment of despair, have indulged in the futile pass-time of wishing that these measures had been in place earlier to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from ever occurring.

So the key is that even if the risk of something occurring is low, that does not mean that it should be considered insignificant. This is one such time.

Right now there are many qualitative risk analyses on COVID-19 being done, not just in Government offices, but in homes, around the world. As I have highlighted from my earliest writing, sadly for some that assessment goes along the lines of “I need to earn an income to be able to feed my family, and even though I may become infected and die, my family will surely die if they do not eat”.

Governments in poor countries must consider that in their wider risk management programs for COVID-19.

Governments in wealthy countries have the resources to ensure that choices for their own citizens are not so stark, but financial aspects certainly do come into considerations.

While these Governments of wealthy countries speak of concerns about the financial security of their citizens, in reality I believe that they are more concerned about their business elites who are lobbying to keep economies open (I have another post in late stages on this topic). 

A complication in all risk assessments around COVID-19 is that it is a pathogen known to mankind for only 8 months, so the gaps in information necessary to draw strong conclusions are considerable.

Where there are measures that could be taken to reduce the risk of spread of SARS-CoV-2 on the basis of the precautionary principle, but where there would be significant impacts to (some or all) business elites, it is easy for Governments and their officials to reject those measures with the blanket statement “there is no evidence”.

Here is the critical point. My experience in biosecurity policy development, implementation and research has shown me that when Governments do not want to deal with the consequences of research findings, then they simply will not encourage – and at times will actively discourage or work to impede – it to be performed or will seek to suppress its publication or actively seek to discredit the work or the researcher.

It is vital that research be done on whether processed meat from facilities that have been the site of COVID-19 clusters has the potential to spread the virus geographically and temporally.

I say temporally – over time – as well as geographically because similar coronaviruses are known to remain infective for over two years when frozen, raising the potential that a country which has (theoretically) eliminated the virus for over two years could experience another outbreak even if their subsequent international biosecurity was perfect and there were no more importations of the virus.

These risks are not insignificant, and they most definitely do have relevance.

In countries with major COVID-19 outbreaks and weak measures to impede the spread of the virus, it is obvious that this is not a major area for consideration because it is likely that people have a far greater risk of contracting infection outside of their homes. Thus in those countries there is much “lower hanging fruit” to be taken to stop the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2.

In countries that have worked hard to stamp out outbreaks, like in New Zealand and Australia, and even in China where at great initial financial and personal cost they succeeded in stamping out major outbreaks, the situation is very different.

Such countries have done the hard work, and have experienced the rewards of less loss of life while other nations have suffered catastrophes, and so their citizens rightly want to jealously protect their COVID-19-free status.

Moreover, there are remote communities that largely due to luck, with a low movement of people meant SARS-CoV-2 was not introduced before the devastation it caused was so apparent, have managed to remain free of COVID-19, e.g. many Pacific islands. Many of these have the added risk factor of having limited capability to respond if COVID-19 were introduced.

Small communities, and even down to household units, all over the world, including in countries which have experienced major outbreaks, have also worked hard at keeping the virus out and are justifiably afraid.

At these levels, the consequence of the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 would be devastating.

Who is going to stand up for these people and say that there is a certain level of risk here, and if those in a position to encourage and fund such studies are afraid of the political and economic consequences from the potential outcomes of research into those risks, who will?

It is not at all accurate to say that we cannot, or it is impractical to, test for virus presence in and on food. For nearly 20 years Australia has tested all imported shipments of uncooked prawns for the presence of white spot virus. I know this well because these import conditions were imposed around one month after I left Biosecurity Australia where I had been the desk officer responsible for prawn importation policy, and I strongly disagreed with this policy change because it was beyond what was reasonable for the risk posed and it was done to appease the prawn farming industry mostly as a technical barrier to trade (i.e. to reduce competition and increase compliance cost of imports). 

I have long pointed to Australia’s world-class, and I might add very costly, biosecurity as a very significant advantage in our fight to minimise the human impacts of COVID-19. It is a real pity when it becomes clear that that capability appears to be considered by the political class to be strictly for protecting financial interests not human life. 

National politicians and officials are not the only actors in this space. There are multi-national organisations which are playing key roles in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and chief amongst them is the World Health Organisation (WHO). I have a high level of respect and appreciation for the WHO and their officials, and I have commonly expressed as much in my posts.

The WHO’s position in downplaying the risks associated with COVID-19 spread in food is interesting and at first blush disappointing. However, several things must be acknowledged. The WHO is not free from political interference and that is clear by what the current US administration said about their closeness with China, and then the US pressure on the WHO by moving to leave it.

At a pragmatic level it must be recognised that the World Health Organisation has a much wider mandate than assisting the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, important as that is. Likely the WHO is very concerned about the broader health implications of disruptions to global food supplies if there is a major scare that COVID-19 may be spread with food.

Perhaps this issue is at the heart of a new national campaign in China against food waste which, due to the apparent immediacy and conviction with which it is being implemented, confused expert observers who have suggested that the Chinese leadership has suddenly become very concerned about food security.

For scientists the science should at all times dictate their actions, including using language that conveys the scientific facts and realities, being mindful of contemporary media’s obsession with 3 second sound bites which will not convey the full picture.

Good science requires humility, and from humility comes a supple mind that is open to all possibilities. 

When scientists lack that humility, and their ego grows from being in a position to influence decisions that will profoundly affect the lives of millions of people, the consequences can be disastrous. Perhaps that is why Sweden’s chief epidemiologist deleted so many emails that were requested by journalists looking into what was the decision process that led to that scientist recommending a very light-touch response to the COVID-19 pandemic, presumably centred around pursuing herd immunity via natural infection, only a few months into the pandemic when there was a paucity of information on critical aspects such as: how the virus caused disease in humans, what was the full consequence (short, medium and long term) of infections in humans, whether infected people develop immunity following natural infection and would that immunity persist long enough to provide substantial protection, and whether the behaviour of citizens would result in the minimal economic impacts that were presumably sort by introducing only minimal measures (obviously a non-scientific issue).

Presently only China is prepared to openly consider and research the risk of spread of the COVID-19 pandemic geographically and temporally in contaminated processed meat. I agree that it is possible that there might be some element of this issue being used as a technical barrier to trade, especially when the current US administration, along with some allies, is intent on being provocative. However, the aggressive and effective Chinese response to stamp out COVID-19 shows that they have fought hard to keep their citizens safe and so it is hardly surprising that they would want to understand all of the risks that may lead to the reintroduction of COVID-19.

I, for one, am grateful that they have made this an issue when many others would continue to dismiss it behind a blanket statement of “there is no evidence”.

What is more, I look forward to their further findings being made available so that the pressure will be maintained on other Governments to implement policies which will keep their own citizens safer in this COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, I will share my thoughts on managing the risks of being infected by SARS-CoV-2 when preparing and consuming processed meat.

This issue highlights the importance of understanding from where our food comes. As the COVID-19 pandemic in Victoria grew, I contacted the supermarket from where I buy most of my meat. They refused to give any further indication on the source of their meats other than to say that they are only legally obliged to confirm that it is of Australia origin.

With major clusters in many Victorian meat processing plants, I think it is clear that customers have a clear right to greater information about their food and should be able to access more granular information on the origin of their food, especially the region where it was produced and processed.

In the absence of mandated testing for presence of SARS-CoV-2, I consider it preferable to procure meat from regions unaffected by COVID-19. This obviously highlights the benefits of good relations with local producers which is less common in countries that have had the link between producers and consumers be upended by supermarkets and national/international food supply chains. It does also highlight the level of confidence of surveillance for COVID-19 in workers at facilities which produce and process food products, and that encompasses an assessment of Government oversight of them as well as of individual businesses (which is standard in biosecurity assessment at the international level where audits and other assessments are conducted on the competency of local biosecurity/quarantine authorities and individual processors).

The following are general good health standards to adopt, especially when dealing with meat of uncertain origin and COVID-19 status:

  • attempt to maintain food preparation areas clutter-free and wipe down with mild disinfectant before and after preparing food;
  • minimise the number of people in the food preparation area while handling uncooked meat;
  • wash hands before and regularly while handling uncooked meat, being extremely careful not to contaminate other surfaces, and do not touch your face with contaminated hands;
  • minimise dropping of meat or packaging containing fluids which can lead to aerosolisation of viruses;
  • with their longer “use by” dates, I am keeping my red meats longer before consuming until much closer to the the “use by” date, and then freezing if the butcher has confirmed it is safe to do so, and even if I buy fresh chicken I am freezing it so that it goes through a freeze/thaw cycle – all of this will reduce (but may not eliminate) the viability/infectivity of any virus present;
  • take particular care to minimise splashing while cleaning up utensils that have come into contact with uncooked meat (particularly important with pressurised tap fittings);
  • ensure meat surfaces are well cooked as coronaviruses are rapidly inactivated at high heat; and
  • if really concerned, food grade gloves may be used and a face mask or face shield will significantly reduce risk.

The thing is that while this might seem extreme to some, after brief reflection most should realise that these are nearly all standard food safety requirements in developed countries. The difference is that most people just have not adopted them in their own homes, but if Governments refuse to give consumers greater surety over the safety of food through the COVID-19 pandemic, then this is exactly where we are at.

As a parting point, the level of risk posed, specifically around the likelihood of being infected by SARS-CoV-2 with food handling and consumption, increases significantly if food animals may be infected by the virus, and that is the subject of a soon to be released post. 

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020

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