“Warning: Workers in U.S. meat and poultry processing facilities have been sickened or killed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and this product has not been certified virus-free.”
The disclosure above, proposed for meat and poultry products, was part of a petition that USDA recently denied, reflecting continuing tensions between the federal government and outside groups over how best to protect Americans amid COVID-19.
In an emergency petition filed May 20, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (“Physicians Committee”)—a nonprofit health organization—requested various forms of relief, including that U.S. processing plants and facilities shipping meat and poultry products into the country test their products for the presence of COVID-19 and publicly disclose those findings.
USDA denied the relief sought amid a global pandemic that has hit the U.S. especially hard, including workers in slaughterhouses that produce meat and poultry products. More than 14,000 of these workers have been infected with COVID-19, resulting in a total of 59 deaths, according to the petition.
“Because these workers, who may be asymptomatic viral carriers, directly handle meat and poultry products, and because the SARS-CoV-2 virus is easily airborne, remaining detectable for 30 minutes or more in air samples, transmission of the virus to the products they handle is likely,” the Physicians Committee wrote in the petition.
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) determined the Physicians Committee failed to provide scientific studies or other information in the petition or an addendum to show “COVID-19 can be transmitted to humans by meat or poultry products.”
The petition referenced a study focused on common foodborne viruses that can be spread by infected food handlers who practice poor personal hygiene. But that research doesn’t “suggest that airborne viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses, can be transmitted by meat or poultry products,” Rachel Edelstein, FSIS’s assistant administrator of the Office of Policy and Program Development, wrote in her response to the petition.
Some of the requested relief, she added, was beyond the agency’s authority, including a request that meat and poultry establishments report to local health authorities the number of workers and their family members with presumptive or positive COVID-19 infections, as well as those dying of the disease.
Edelstein also proclaimed the Physicians’ Committee proposed a “misleading” warning statement in its request for disclaimers on product labels and at retail facilities “because it inaccurately implies that meat and poultry products that have not been ‘certified as virus-free’ may transmit COVID-19 or are somehow unsafe.”
“As discussed above, public health and food safety experts have found no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with meat or poultry products,” she added in the letter to Mark Kennedy, vice president of legal affairs with the Physicians Committee.
Responding to the denial of the petition, Kennedy said his group is “exploring further legal options.”
Kennedy observed the U.S. on Wednesday reached a single-day record number of COVID-19 cases, with the total number exceeding 3 million. According to a New York Times database, more than 59,400 infections were announced, which the newspaper reported marked the “fifth national record set in nine days.”
“Since the executive order to keep meat plants open was signed, nearly 35,000 meat plant workers have become infected with COVID-19, and at least 140 have died,” Kennedy wrote in an email. “Meat processing is not essential, but protecting consumers, workers and their families is.”