COVID-19 clusters have appeared in abattoirs but the same can’t be said for other food manufacturers.
Over 2020 we’ve seen many industries affected by COVID-19. With the infectious nature of COVID-19, it has left many Australians concerned about how safe their food is. One sub-sector that’s received a lot of negative press is the meat processing industry and abattoirs. News stories about COVID outbreaks have only fuelled fears that our food in Australia isn’t safe from Coronavirus. Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth.
Coronavirus clusters in meat processing plants have continued to be a problem not only in Australia but around the world. What’s interesting to note is the rest of the food processing sectors in Australia have not been affected by clusters. It has a lot to do with the strict food safety measures we have. What a lot of people don’t realise is the difference between a meat abattoir and a standard food processing factory.
99% of the food industry in Australia has been unaffected by Coronavirus. Industry experts attribute this surprising statistic to the good manufacturing practices already in place. FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) has played a huge part in this thanks to the implementation of The Food Standards Code which guides food safety standards in Australia.
Why are there Coronavirus clusters in meat processing?
Cold and damp indoor areas have proven to be perfect environments for Coronavirus to linger and spread. It’s now widely known that the virus can be spread via droplets that are coughed, sneezed or exhaled by an infected person. Infection can also come via close contact with the person or by touching an infected work surface.
In an environment like an abattoir, it’s more likely that virus-containing droplets from infected workers can spread. After being airborne, droplets can still settle on a surface and stay viable. Another unique aspect is the noisy machinery which requires people to talk loudly and shout, spreading infected droplets as they do so.
The tight spaces in the production line have also been pointed out as a potential risk factor. It’s not uncommon for meat processing workers to be standing shoulder to shoulder as they cut up different meat portions. This is due to the fact that a lot of food production processes in an abattoir cannot be automated yet. They still require manual labour.
Dr Fiona Stanaway, a clinical epidemiologist at Melbourne University has the following to say on the Coronavirus clusters’ “Having a group of people reasonably close together in a closed environment increases the risk of transmission.” Another factor to point out is the long hours that meat factory workers endure. So what you’re getting is large groups of workers spending large amounts of time together and not social distancing.
Can COVID-19 be spread through meat products?
Currently, the answer is no. Health experts have been loud and clear about the fact that meat products do not help spread the virus. Experts still maintain that the virus is only spread through droplets and respiratory secretions.
So when you look at the cause of the clusters at meat processing plants, it’s the combination of the environment and community transmission. An outbreak won’t start at an abattoir until an infected worker enters the premises. It has nothing to do with the meat that’s been delivered to and processed at the plant.
To further prove this point, there’s been multiple occasions when the meat has been transferred from one plant to another. In Australia, when operations would cease at one infected abattoir, the meat would then be transported to a neighbouring facility to continue processing that meat. Since then, abattoirs have reopened and continued to operate after deep cleaning procedures.
How good manufacturing practice has prevented Coronavirus clusters
There are many reasons why other food processing plants and factories have been unaffected by Coronavirus. Good food manufacturing processes have always been part of the culture when it comes to the food industry in Australia. A high standard of industry training has also helped many Australian businesses keep up with rules and regulations relating to food safety.
The nature of food production and pre-existing food safety procedures both have their part to play when it comes to the safety of food processing factories. Standard practices such as wearing face masks, long sleeves, and gloves have helped reduce the risk of Coronavirus spreading in these facilities.
Many factories now have automated processes in place that are carried out by machinery. As more work is automated, there’s less manual labour carried out. So you don’t always have endless lines of workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder to get food through an assembly line. Social distancing is already a natural consequence of many food factories.
Most food processing plants already have strict rules and measures in place for wearing PPE (personal protective equipment). So it’s not uncommon for factory workers to already be wearing gloves, masks, aprons, hair nets or caps. Equipment like face masks already helps prevent the spread of airborne droplets. Even in the case of workers not social distancing, they are still wearing protective equipment which can help stop the spread of COVID-19.
The future of food safety and training in Australia
The National Food Institute continues to be a proud advocate for food safety and training. The training courses we provide give students and workers relevant skills for the food processing industry. Many course units focus on Occupational Health and Safety in the workplace.
There are several key units that are part of our Certificates in Food Processing. They cover topics such as, food safety, cleaning and sanitising, and environmentally sustainable work practices. It’s units like these which are the building blocks of holistic education. Now more than ever, it’s been proven that the right training and work environment can effectively help prevent the spread of Coronavirus in the food industry.
Support your business’s food safety program with workplace-based training from the National Food Institute.