Meat processing workers are sick with COVID-19 and some closed plants may reopen. What does this mean for the proteins on your plate?

By Jessica Migala
Updated May 01, 2020
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No doubt that your shopping, cooking, and eating habits have changed over the past couple of months because of coronavirus stay-at-home orders. And among the questions about whether or not you should wipe down your groceries and if it’s safe to eat produce, another has emerged: Is it still okay to eat meat?

Some meat processing plants have shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreaks among workers, prompting a forthcoming shortage of meat in grocery stores, according to The Washington Post. At the same time, politicians are pressuring some closed plants to reopen. So: If workers are getting sick, can the virus spread to you via meat?

The short answer is that it’s just as safe as before to serve up a burger, roast chicken, or pot roast for dinner tonight. “It’s important to be aware that processing plants are being shut down because of worker safety, not food safety,” says Jim Roth, DVM, PhD, Director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University in Ames. “Livestock and poultry are not susceptible to infection with SARS CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19. Their meat, milk, and eggs are safe to eat,” he says.

Certainly, worker safety is a critical issue, and, in addition to the personal protective equipment (like gloves) that they’ve always worn, these processing plants may have also likely implemented (or should) face mask requirements, too, says Angela M. Fraser, PhD, professor in the department of food, nutrition, and packaging sciences at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. Properly outfitting workers will help protect them.

However, to quell any concerns for you and your family, remember that there’s no evidence that SARS CoV-2 is spread through food, says Fraser. “This illness is transmitted through person-to-person contact,” she says.

What’s more, the virus doesn’t survive for long on packaging, and by the time food is shipped, stored, and sits on grocery store shelves, there’s also little risk of you getting sick from the packaging, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This goes for meat packaging and all other items at the grocery store, says Roth.

Remember to stay safe while shopping

No matter if you’re buying meat, veggies, or pasta, wear a mask when shopping and don’t touch your face or mouth. Upon getting home, wash your hands, put groceries away, and then wash your hands a final time. Hand washing disrupts the chain of transmission. “If I take these steps, I’m not worried,” says Fraser.

Also practice good food safety habits at home—because bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses, like salmonella, are still a threat. Wash your hands and surfaces before and after handling raw meat and cook meat and eggs to the proper temperature, says Roth.