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Doctors are urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to warn consumers of the potential presence of SARS-CoV-2 on meat and poultry products.

Nonprofit organization the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed an emergency petition with the department.

It has also requested that slaughterhouses test meat and poultry for the virus prior to making it available for sale.

COVID-19 hotspots

The meat industry has made headlines in recent weeks after a top analyst branded U.S. meatpacking facilities ‘COVID-19 hotpots’ as infection levels within the facilities have outpaced the rest of the country.

According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, which has been compiling data of the positive cases and deaths, as of May 20, there have been at least 15,300 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 192 plants in 32 states, and at least 63 reported worker deaths at 31 plants in 18 states.

According to PCRM, slaughterhouses have been ‘central points of viral spread in humans’. The organization notes that in South Dakota, more than half the cases of COVID-19 statewide occurred in workers at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, and adds that workers have ‘expressed grave concerns for their personal safety’ due to the frequent transmission of the virus within slaughterhouses.

Easily airborne

The petition, which filed by Mark Kennedy, vice president for Legal Affairs at the Physicians Committee, says: “Because these workers, who may be asymptomatic viral carriers, directly handle meat and poultry products, and because SARS-CoV-2 is easily airborne, remaining detectable for 30 minutes or more in air samples, transmission of the virus to the products they handle is likely.”

PCRM adds: “Researchers have not specifically tested the temperature at which meat and poultry products would have to be heated to kill SARS-CoV-2.

“U.S. slaughterhouses remain under intense pressure to produce meat and poultry products, despite risks to workers and the public. Despite this risk, no U.S. slaughterhouse tests its meat and poultry products for the presence of the virus.”