When COVID-19 gridlocked the planet in early 2020, there were many unknowns as society found itself in the midst of a pandemic unlike anything seen in more than a century. From how the virus originated, to how it spreads and how it could be defeated, scientists and researchers began the fight to beat the disease.
Early in the pandemic as researchers learned about the high rate of transmissibility of the SARS-CoV-2 virus through the air, many businesses and workplaces shifted to remote work or shut down all together. While this was an option for some industries, essential businesses such as food processing facilities remained open leaving their populations at risk.
As the pandemic progressed and positive cases skyrocketed, meat and poultry processing plants across the country faced outbreaks of the virus within their facilities. These outbreaks led to temporary closures resulting in the inability for these facilities to continue operations and subsequent disruptions to the food supply chain.
Initially, COVID-19 protocols and guidelines for these facilities were set based on what had been observed in hospital and school settings, but these practices were not necessarily applicable to the food industry.
To combat these concerns, researchers in the College of Agriculture and the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University began to investigate how the coronavirus persists and spreads during commercial meat and poultry manufacturing operations. After securing a $1 million grant from the USDA, the team of K-State researchers began working on the project to study how the virus can be effectively controlled within these facilities to protect the plant workers and ensure no further disruptions in the nation’s food supply.
The main goal of this research is to profile how the infectious virus responds (survives and decays) over time on food contact surfaces during processing operations and during standard cleaning and sanitation activities. The study will focus on more than 10 material surfaces in both cleaned and soiled status representative of meat and poultry processing facility environments. Among these materials are stainless steel and aluminum.
“The USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA)responded to our nation’s COVID-19 crisis by announcing an emergency response program to fund research over a range of SARS-CoV-2 topics to control risks associated with the food and agricultural sectors, deemed critical infrastructures,” said Dr. Randall Phebus, Professor of Food Safety at Kansas State University. “We were successful in securing one of the large grants to specifically address risks and mitigation of the virus in the unique meat and poultry processing environment where there is a high density of workers, unique processing conditions, and an obvious emergency-level problem occurring. Our team’s long-established connections to the food processing industry and technology companies supporting food manufacturing were key to us winning this award.”
When approached by K-State to source varying metals, Spectrum Metalcraft of Salina, KS agreed to donate materials to assist with the research. Spectrum donated 60 pieces of metal including 30 pieces of 316 alloy stainless steel with a mirror finish cut from .036” and 30 pieces of 6061 alloy aluminum with a mirror finish cut from .032” thick material. The 60 pieces measure 4” x4” each and will be used to simulate food contact surfaces. Other materials included in the study are fiber-reinforced plastics, rubber and chain mesh.
“When Dr. Phebus’ team approached us with helping them source materials needed for the study, we were happy to provide all the support needed," said Travis Young, CEO of Spectrum Metalcraft. "It requires collaboration between private industry and institutions, like K-State, to beat this pandemic and better understand the virus.”
After studies on how well the virus survives on surfaces, large scale research will begin in the summer of 2021 on the aerosolization aspects of the virus within these facilities. In these studies, researchers will nebulize the virus to represent a cough or sneeze of an infected line worker to study its mitigation down a processing line. The intent is to examine how long the virus moves, survives and maintains its infectivity.
The meat and poultry industries are not unique in their quest to supply food to the world during the pandemic. Similar studies are being done at other institutions to study how the virus spreads in produce facilities. Ultimately, these findings will be used to set guidelines moving forward and ensure the safety and continuity of the nation’s food supply.
About the Kansas State University College of Agriculture :
The mission of the College of Agriculture is to develop human capital at the undergraduate and graduate levels to support agriculture, agriculturally related industries, natural resources management, education and research. In doing so, the College of Agriculture educates people for productive lives that contribute to agriculture, society and to the economic competitiveness of Kansas. To learn more, visit www.ag.k-state.edu.
About the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine :
The College of Veterinary Medicine is dedicated to the advancement of health and welfare of animals, people, the environment, and the veterinary profession through excellence in teaching, research, service and outreach. We are committed to a professional degree program with broad training opportunities across a comprehensive range of companion and exotic animals, and livestock species. Our focus is on initiatives that address important societal needs at a local, national and global level. To learn more, visit www.vet.k-state.edu.
About Spectrum Metalcraft:
Spectrum Metalcraft, a Vortex company, is a full-service custom metal fabrication and component manufacturing shop. Spectrum offers a variety of fabrication capabilities including, lasers, robotic welders, blasting booths, and liquid and powder paint systems, among others. Other services provided by Spectrum Metalcraft include cutting, electropolishing, welding, braking, finishing and assembly services. Spectrum’s 125,000 square foot fabrication facility is located in Salina, Kansas. Formerly known as Kasa Fab, Spectrum Metalcraft was acquired by Vortex Global in September 2018. To learn more about services provided and how Spectrum can assist in your metal fabrication needs, visit www.spectrum-metalcraft.com or call 785-825-5612.