FSIS Denies Petition by Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine; No Evidence of Transmission of COVID-19 via Meat and Poultry

By Riëtte van Laack

On May 20, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) submitted a Petition to FSIS requesting that FSIS require all meat and poultry establishments to test and report on a weekly basis the number of workers and the number of their family members with presumptive or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections and those dying of COVID-19; weekly posting of the number of FSIS inspectors with presumptive or confirmed SARS- CoV-2 infections and those dying of COVID- 19; and requiring a label statement on meat and poultry: “Warning: Workers in the U.S. meat and poultry processing facilitates have been sickened or killed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and this product has not been certified virus-free.”

On July 1, after an expedited review, FSIS denied the Petition.  As to the warning statement, FSIS responded that public health and food safety experts have found no evidence to support the notion that COVID-19 is transmitted by meat or poultry products. The Petition referenced a study regarding transmission of viruses via food.  However, as FSIS noted, the referenced study focused on common foodborne viruses, such as norovirus, which can be transmitted by infected food handlers.  SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses are airborne, and the study did not suggest that airborne viruses can be transmitted by meat and poultry products.

The requested warning statement would be misleading because it implies that meat and poultry products that have not been “certified as virus-free” may transmit COVID-19 or are somehow unsafe. Because public health and food safety experts have found no evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 associated with meat or poultry products (and the Petitioner did not provide any such evidence), the requested warning statement would cause meat and poultry products to be misbranded.

Similarly, it also would not be useful to test meat and poultry for the presence of the virus because there is no evidence of transmission.  The effort and resources spent on testing the meat and poultry would be better used on preventing transmission of COVID-19 in the meat and poultry establishments.

Some of the actions requested were outside the scope of FSIS’s authority.  There is nothing in the law or regulations that gives FSIS the authority to require that FSIS-regulated establishments report information on the health status of employees to public health authorities, or that authorizes FSIS to make information related to the health status of Agency inspectors available to the public.