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Cattle Q&A: Davey Griffin on meat safety during COVID-19

Progressive Cattle Editor David Cooper Published on 03 April 2020

While the rise of the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease created turmoil in beef commodity markets, a steady supply of beef continues to be delivered into the food chain.

In an effort to understand further how packing facilities are adapting to both the distribution demand for beef and the ongoing food safety concerns during a time of pandemic, Dr. Davey Griffin, Texas A&M University professor and extension meat scientist, offered the following answers to questions from Progressive Cattle Editor David Cooper.

The movement of the meat supply during this national crisis has required a distribution shift of beef originally ordered for dine-in, schools and institutions toward grocery retail. What are the biggest challenges with this kind of shift?

Although inspected and, in many cases, high-quality, the products originally processed and packaged for foodservice that are now being shifted to retail may be in volumes, packaging and labeling meant for commercial applications. They may not have cooking instructions and would not carry nutritional labeling like products typically found at retail.

Stores may be repackaging, and there has been a relaxed position on nutritional labeling under the current conditions to help with these issues, but with many consumers preparing more meals than ever at home, there may be some confusion about how to use the products.

For example, I was visiting with a person online recently who saw “chuck shoulder” offered and wondered how he might cook with it. After he sent me a photo, the vacuum-packaged cuts were actually beef chuck shoulder tenders, which are excellent for grilling and many other applications. So, fortunately, if people have an opportunity to go online, there are many resources to help them prepare a healthy, nutritious meal.

Recently, the North American Meat Institute posted documents from Cargill and Maple Leaf Foods showing their industry best practices to prevent and contain COVID-19 in the workplace. How usual is this kind of transparency for beef packers?

Transparency in the beef industry has not always been a common practice. Obviously, companies in competition have proprietary operations and methods that they feel are essential to keep confidential. However, just as they have become more open with consumer concerns about animal handling and other issues, and in a time of crisis, it does not surprise me that this type of information would be shared throughout the industry. The industry itself and its employees play an essential role in feeding the nation and helping to reassure the public that we are going to get through this critical time.

What are some of the key measures consumers should know during this period about how beef is prepared safely and in clean surroundings?

Fortunately, we still have the safest food supply in the world. All commercial beef plants producing beef to be sold to the public are inspected by (mainly) federal or state inspectors. Each animal is under inspection before, during and after harvest and throughout processing. The plants are required to operate under sanitary standard operating procedures (SSOPs) and have a functioning Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan.

Plant facilities are cleaned and sanitized at least daily, although many have interim cleanup periods throughout the daily operation as well, and the cleaning/sanitation supplies that they use are capable of controlling the virus as well as microbiological concerns typically associated with meat animal production.

Daily inspection of all facilities occurs prior to startup of operations, as well as during operation. Plant employees also follow strict sanitation requirements while working. In the current climate, many are being interviewed and their temperature checked prior to being admitted into the plant for work.

Do meat packing facilities require more PPE (personal protective equipment) during this kind of situation than usual?

At present, to my knowledge, most plants are not requiring additional PPE. The employees that are in direct contact with products are already used to wearing clean garments, hair nets, beard nets, plastic gloves and other PPE according to their job responsibilities in the facility.

How would social distancing work in a beef packing plant? Is it even possible?

Social distancing during work in at least large, high-volume-producing plants is a very difficult practice. Plants are built with maximum efficiency in mind, so there is minimum distance between workers on the harvest or fabrication lines.

That being said, the employees are using knives and other equipment that requires some distance between them, so there is some distance but not the recommended distance in many instances. I am sure that plants are very aware and are also making efforts to practice social distancing in common areas of the plants, especially entrances, locker rooms, break rooms, etc.

Some that I am aware of are also increasing their evaluation of employees as they enter the plant, taking temperatures and asking health-related questions regarding their well-being. If something does not seem right, they are asking the workers to not come to work.

Should a worker in a packing facility test positive for the virus, what can a plant do to back trace products that may have been exposed?

Every plant has a traceback plan for purposes of potential recall issues. If a worker tests positive for the virus and notifies the facility, the facility will begin to take action to identify which day or days the employee could have been in the facility while infected and where/what parts might be affected.

It will also inform FSIS or state inspection and the local health inspectors. As already mentioned, the plant would have been cleaned and sanitized each day (or more frequently), which means the surrounding workers being exposed is one of the largest concerns. In terms of product, the affected lot could be identified and a determination made as to how to proceed. Fortunately, to date I know of no concerns or cases identifying food as the agent of concern for the virus, and I understand it is killed by cooking.

What would happen if incrementally the packing industry sees a reduction in workforce labor due to either government policies or higher number of employees exposed?

This is an issue that not only is a concern for the beef industry but for all essential businesses during this critical time. Depletion of product stockpiles has or is already happening for essential goods and supplies. If there is not a continual restocking, there is the potential for shortages.

Also, with a product such as beef, as animals are finished and ready to go to harvest, continuing to maintain them puts a burden on the industry and causes inefficiencies. Therefore, keeping the packing industry workforce healthy and continuing to supply safe, healthy beef has to be of utmost importance to the companies.

It seems ground beef is flying off shelves right now. What are the cuts national buyers should look for with the best value and ease of preparation?

It may be more obvious than ever that ground beef is the most versatile beef product and the one more consumers are comfortable preparing. While on the subject, I’d like to remind everyone that they need to be sure and cook products that contain ground beef to a minimum internal temperature of 160ºF. I am a big fan of thermometers.

Since beef processors would really like to produce almost anything other than ground beef (due to its low price), a number of other cuts could be experimented with during this time.

Top-blade or flat-iron steaks are one that comes to mind. It is the second-most-tender muscle in terms of muscle tissue tenderness, but because it comes from the chuck is sometimes overlooked. It is a solid muscle cut that can be prepared less well done with safe and surprisingly tender results.

The petite shoulder tender is another cut that might be more plentiful at retail than usual, and the top sirloin cap or coulotte (Brazilian restaurants use this as picanha) can be cut into steaks, thin slices or cooked whole.

Consumers with more time at home might revert back to an old favorite: slow-cooked beef pot roast from the chuck or round. Most times, roasts provide more than one meal, with the properly refrigerated leftovers being available for sandwiches, stir fry or any number of different next-day dishes. Any of these “solid muscle” cuts are always made better by cutting across the “grain” of the muscle to maximize tenderness and cooking to a lesser degree of doneness. end mark

PHOTO: Dr. Davey Griffin, meat scientist with Texas A&M University and AgriLife Extension. Photo by David Cooper.

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