FORTY food processing plants are being monitored for Covid outbreaks

FORTY food processing plants are being monitored for Covid outbreaks by hygiene watchdog in England

  • Dr Colin Sullivan, at Food Standard’s Agency, said they are monitoring 40 sites
  • He said there was evidence  food factories could be more susceptible to Covid
  • Food factories have hosted an unusually high number of Covid-19 outbreaks 

Forty food processing plants are currently being monitored for coronavirus outbreaks by the hygiene watchdog in England. 

Dr Colin Sullivan, chief operating officer at the Food Standard’s Agency (FSA), told a board meeting on August 26 they are monitoring a ‘small number of sites’, as reported by Food Manufacture. 

He added: ‘For example in England yesterday we were looking at approximately 40 processing plants in both meat and non-meat with active outbreaks.’

Dr Sullivan added there was some evidence that food processing plants could be more susceptible to outbreaks of the disease. 

Food factories have hosted an unusually high number of Covid-19 outbreaks around the world, with the most recent incident coming at a Greencore sandwich factory in Northampton where 300 workers have caught the virus.

Workers at a meat processing plant (stock image). Dr Sullivan added there was some evidence that food processing plants could be more susceptibly to outbreaks of the disease

Experts say the cold, sunless environments, cramped working conditions and staff who are more likely to use public transport may be ideal for the virus to spread.  

A report presented to the board by Chief Executive Emma Miles at the same meeting said: ‘We continue to monitor the relatively small number of outbreaks of COVID19 connected to food processing sites and are seeing only a handful in both meat and non-meat plants.

‘Overall these represent a very small proportion of the total food industry. It is not the FSA’s role to do health and safety monitoring of workplaces though where we have staff (i.e. in meat plants), we follow these issues particularly closely. 

‘Our assessment of the risk of transmission of COVID-19 through consumption or handling of food, or handling of packaging, remains very low. ‘  

The Food Standards Agency says it is ‘clear that it remains very unlikely that people can catch Covid-19 from food. Covid-19 is a respiratory illness and not known to be transmitted by exposure to food or food packaging’. 

As news has emerged of food factories around the world experiencing outbreaks of Covid-19, experts have suggested conditions inside the plants may be conducive to the spread of the virus. 

Greencore in Northampton said nearly 300 staff there have tested positive for Covid-19 and are self-isolating

Dr Simon Clarke, a cellular microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline that it was notable that food factories seemed to have been the centre of outbreaks more than other factories where people might be close together.

He said: ‘There are problems in this country, in Germany, in the United States. There is something common between them – it’s not happening in engineering or clothing factories where you also might expect people to be in close proximity to one another.

‘One assumes – but it’s just an idea – that the cold environment makes people more susceptible to the virus. 

‘Cold weather irritates the airways and the cells become more susceptible to viral infection.’ 

Dr Chris Smith, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, said on LBC ‘temperature is going to play a part’.

He explained: ‘When I’m breathing I’m blowing out droplets of moisture from my respiratory tract and the virus which is growing in there would be packaged up in the droplets. 

‘Now the droplets will hover for a period of time in the air and then sink to the ground… and if it’s very dry, cold air – and cold air carries less moisture, remember – the droplets will stay smaller and stay airborne for longer. 

‘If it’s very humid, moisture joins them, makes them bigger and heavier, and they fall and they drop out of circulation faster – so temperature could be a factor.’

Sunlight is also known to degrade viruses and make them less able to survive on surfaces that are exposed to UV light.

Rays of sunlight are thought to damage the genetic material inside the virus, making it less able to reproduce and killing it faster. 

Professor Calum Semple, a disease outbreak expert at the University of Liverpool, told The Telegraph that cold, sunless food factories are ideal conditions.

He said: ‘If I wanted to preserve a virus I would put it in a cold, dark environment or a cool environment that doesn’t have any ultraviolet light – essentially a fridge or a meat processing facility…

‘The perfect place to keep a virus alive for a long time is a cold place without sunlight.’ 

But the temperature alone does not appear to be a controlling factor in coronavirus outbreaks. 

Dr Michael Head, a global health researcher at the University of Southampton, said he thought close proximity was most likely to be behind the factory outbreaks.

He said: ‘Whilst refrigeration may be a contributory factor to the spread of the virus, the key factors are likely to be the number of people close together in indoor conditions. 

‘Some of these factories have onsite or nearby accommodation where there are several people in each dormitory, they may be transported on a bus to the site of work, and they will be indoors together all day.

‘Levels of adherence to measures such as washing hands is uncertain and there is unlikely to be widespread use of PPE.’   

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