USDA funds $1 million research project studying COVID-19 in U.S. beef supply chain

FILE PHOTO: Certified beef cattle are pictured at Rancho Estrada in the town of San Agustin, on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding a $1 million research project to identify how the virus that causes COVID-19 might be transmitted in the nation’s beef supply chain, from cattle on the farm to the packages of meat inside a person’s refrigerator.

One goal of the two-year project, set to begin in October, is to help reduce the risk of exposure for consumers and people who work in the meat industry, according to a USDA document describing the research effort led by Texas A&M University.

The grant is part of a broader effort by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which has recently awarded about $13 million across 17 projects studying the impact of COVID-19 on livestock, food safety, food processing and the American agricultural sector, an agency spokesperson said Friday.

USDA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program awarded another $1.3 million, divided between 14 grants.

While there is no evidence the virus spreads through food or food packaging, “that really doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t study this, just to make sure that we understand how the virus behaves throughout the distribution system,” former NIFA Director J. Scott Angle said on a USDA radio program in May.

The research is ramping up as China - the world’s top meat importer - halts food imports from companies if their products or packaging tested positive for the virus.

Thousands of meatpacking workers in North America and Brazil have contracted coronavirus.

Researchers will examine the impact of the virus on different stages of meat processing and packaging, and determine the virus’s ability to survive on meat and packaging material during transportation and in retail areas, said Sapna Chitlapilly Dass, a Texas A&M meat science research assistant professor who leads the project, and working with USDA and the University of Pennsylvania.

Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman