Government scientists have asked the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to investigate whether food could harbour coronavirus following major outbreaks in meatpacking plants.
Four food processing factories in England and Wales have suffered clusters of disease, with 469 workers testing positive for the virus so far.
Across the world, staff at meat packing plants have been disproportionately impacted by disease, with cold, crowded and noisy working conditions which force people to shout, thought to be to blame.
Now it has emerged that government scientists have asked the FSA to check whether the virus could get into food. So far the risk has been assessed as low, but experts say they are continuing to monitor the situation.
A government source said: “We have actually asked the Food Standards Agency to look at this a few times, about the risk in meat and other produce, and their assessment is that the risk is very low for transmission on meat.
“But we’ll keep asking them to look as new evidence comes up.”
In the US, as many as 25,000 meat and poultry workers have tested positive for Covid-19, and at least 93 have died.
This week Kirklees council confirmed that 165 employees of an Asda-owned meat processing plant in West Yorkshire had contracted the virus and Public Health Wales reported 200 coronavirus cases at a meat processing plant on Anglesey owned by 2 Sisters Food Group, one of Britain’s largest poultry suppliers.
There have also been 34 cases linked to Kepak in Merthyr Tydfil and 70 at Rowan Foods in Wrexham.
Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton, said: “Whilst refrigeration may be a contributory factor to the spread of the virus, the key factors are likely to be the number of people close together in indoor conditions.
“Some of these factories have onsite or nearby accommodation where there are several people in each dormitory, they may be transported on a bus to the site of work, and they will be indoors together all day.”