My Department participated in a National Outbreak Control Team (NOCT), convened by the Health Services Executive (HSE) to oversee the investigation of COVID-19 in Meat Processing Plants (MPPs) and agreed to co-ordinate further studies of factors that might have contributed to within-plant transmission of COVID-19 – focusing on operational and environmental factors in affected meat processing plants (MPPs).
In the first instance, my Department conducted a pilot study (during July/ early August 2020) in a single affected plant as a feasibility assessment of in-depth retrospective investigation. This pilot study was undertaken by a multi-disciplinary team, comprising officials from different state agencies, academic researchers from three universities and technical managers at the pilot plant and it encompassed expertise in occupational health, medical microbiology, aerosol science, food safety regulation and meat processing operations.
The investigative team assembled documents describing the layout and operation of the plant, the sequence of events that had occurred and the distribution of COVID-19 cases. This was followed up by a site visit, which included a semi-structured interview with local managers (primarily to clarify how COVID-19 risk was assessed and managed on site) and a walk through different working areas of the plant to observe key operational steps and risk mitigation measures.
A subgroup of the investigative team spent several days undertaking physical and environmental measurements, including measuring bio-aerosols. Bio-aerosols were measured in the boning hall and compared with similar measurements in the abattoir. A gradual but steady increase in the concentration of bio-aerosols (and the concentration of CO2) was measured over the course of a working shift in the boning hall but not in the abattoir.
Although, these findings are preliminary and only represent one affected plant at one specific point in time, they corroborate other international findings highlighting a particular risk in MPPs relating to the re-circulation of chilled air in those working areas where meat is cut and packaged (an industry norm to comply with food hygiene regulations).
Further studies are warranted to establish if this is a consistent pattern in affected Irish meat plants and to validate additional mitigation measures.
In this context my Department, senior UCD academics and other partners in Ireland, Northern Ireland and overseas made a grant application to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) seeking funding for further studies in reply to their latest COVID-19 rapid research call. This research consortium includes the research group and meat processor involved in investigation of a large outbreak in a German MPP.
As a result of this application, funding will be made available from 1 December to hire dedicated researchers to work with relevant state agencies and meat plant operators on a comprehensive suite of solutions to control and prevent COVID-19 in food businesses and other workplaces.