Cleckheaton coronavirus outbreak: Can you catch Covid-19 from eating meat?

After an outbreak of coronavirus at a meat processing factory in Cleckheaton, public concern has been raised that infection could be spread through food or its packaging.

The Kober factory in Cleckheaton

The Kober Ltd factory, which is now in temporary shutdown, supplies Asda with bacon products. There was also an outbreak at a bacon factory in Barnsley in May, resulting in three deaths.

Coronavirus spreads in environments where people are living and working in close proximity to one other - such as on a meat production line - and is transmitted via droplets of moisture from coughs and sneezes.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

As meat processing plants all over the world have suffered outbreaks of Covid-19, customers have raised concerns that they could catch the virus from the meat they have purchased - with some even claiming that it is safer to buy meat from a local butcher rather than a supermarket.

Read More

Read More
Read more: This is why meat factories are so susceptible to coronavirus outbreak...

The government-run Food Standards Agency has been researching the possible transmission of coronavirus via food and packaging since the pandemic began, and published a report on the subject on June 12. It's available to read on their website.

Although the study isn't conclusive - mainly because Covid-19 is a new infection that scientists are still in the process of learning more about - the FSA believes the risk of transmission within the food chain is low or unlikely.

They began the research because of the association between early cases in China and the seafood market in Wuhan. Although the new strain of coronavirus is believed to have jumped the species barrier from animals to humans, we still don't know which species is the 'vector' of the infection.

The report reads:-

"We consider that the probability that UK consumers will receive potentially infectious exposures of SARS-CoV-2 via the consumption of food or the handling of food contact materials or packaging is negligible as assessed by pathway A (food of animal origin) and very low (very rare but cannot be excluded) as assessed by pathway B (contamination of food), with an overall risk of Very Low.

"The uncertainty associated with this estimate is High, partly as there are significant data gaps relating specifically to SARS-CoV-2; a number of assumptions in this document are therefore based on data relating to other coronaviruses."

The study only dealt with the potential transmission via consumption of food, and did not assess the occupational risk to food handlers working in slaughterhouses.

On the point of whether symptoms can result from consuming meat from an infected animal, the report states:-

"The host organism(s) for SARS-CoV-2 has not yet been identified. Therefore, with no further information at this time, the probability of food products being produced from an infected animal is Very Low, and the probability that there are sufficient infectious viral titres present in the edible fraction of derived meat and dairy products to infect a consumer is considered Very Low."

Other sections of the report consider whether there is a risk of transmission from food handlers to the meat during the processing stage and whether it can be spread by contact with food packaging.

"The probability of cross-contamination from infected human handlers to food will be dependent on the frequency of contact that is sufficient to transfer a significant amount of virus, the degree to which hygiene measures mitigate the transmission, and the subsequent survival of the virus on that food, food contact materials, or packaging.

"For certain commodities, multiple people can be involved in the food chain from farm to fork during cultivation, harvesting, manufacturing, processing, packaging, preparation and serving which may result in cross-contamination to food if the human handlers are infected.

"Coronaviruses are mainly transmitted by large respiratory droplets and direct or indirect contact with contaminated secretions. SARS-CoV-2 RNA has been detected in saliva, blood, faeces, gastric duodenal and rectal epithelia and in urine.

"Human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 has been confirmed as the main source of transmission, however the risk of infection via the faecal-oral route cannot be excluded. To date there are no further studies on viral shedding via other body fluids such as sweat.

"The number of detected cases in the UK coupled with the surveillance and current government advice means that the likelihood of a food handler or others involved in the manufacture of food being infectious can currently be considered to be low. However, if good food hygiene practices and self-isolation policies are followed by all workers, it is our opinion that the probability of cross-contamination resulting in food products, food contact materials or packaging in the UK being contaminated with infectious virus during food production is very low."