Meat protein producers — livestock and poultry farmers, along with egg and dairy producers — pay attention to pathogen control and infection mitigation within their operations every day. Whether following the mandates of a production contract, or best practices followed by an independent producer, ensuring the biosecurity of production facilities has a direct effect on productivity, animal health and ultimately profitability.
The COVID-19 crisis has focused a great deal of attention on the food supply chain and what happens before products reach the grocers’ shelves. Consumers should be confident that there are effective measures in place to keep livestock products safe to eat. However, with the linking of COVID-19 and the food supply chain, it’s important to help separate the conversations between what is being done to keep food safe, and what is being done, or can be done, to better protect workers throughout the supply chain.
Craig Steen, CEO of JBI Distributors and Services, a biosecurity firm in Red Oak, Iowa, explains these differences and interrelationships.
What is the COVID-19 risk to livestock in production barns, feedlots and in transport? To our knowledge, there are no reported cases of COVID-19 in livestock. The risk of this virus appears to be to humans. In addition, if best practices are applied in sanitization and disinfection of barns, trucks and other facilities, even if the COVID-19 virus were present, it would likely be mitigated along with the other pathogens that do pose a risk to livestock.
When we hear about COVID-19 in meat processing facilities, what are the risks and what might mitigate them? The COVID-19 outbreaks in processing plants have exposed operational vulnerabilities, most of which can be addressed through many of the same cleaning approaches already employed in the plants. With the adoption of additional protocols and practices beyond the food safety realm, these vulnerabilities can be mitigated.
To address the issue, which is prominent in many people’s minds, the well-established sanitation protocols for food safety should prevent any pathogen, including COVID-19, from being transmitted through the meat products themselves.
The situation can become less certain when workers may unknowingly be carriers of a virulent pathogen such as COVID-19. This can lead to situations of community transfer through handling of packaged products, shared work tools, equipment and transport vehicles, and use of common areas such as breakrooms and locker rooms within the plants.
As I mentioned above, disinfectant products already in use for keeping the production areas safe should also be effective in controlling and mitigating COVID-19 and similar pathogens throughout the plant. It has not been typical practice to sanitize common areas to the same level as the production line, but during this current crisis, it is certainly prudent to explore some different methods for keeping workers safe.
What are some examples of best practices for pathogen mitigation in production facilities? Keeping animals healthy by maintaining clean environments is a crucial first step in protecting the food supply chain. The big producers have very specific protocols and requirements for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting production facilities. Contract-holders are responsible for preparing the barn to pass inspection before a new animal group moves in. Inspection failures can be costly both in time and labor, which can also impact profit margins for the producer and operator.
Key factors in effective sanitization and disinfection include the ability of the applied chemicals to penetrate and remove residue and tough biofilms, extended surface contact time, and kill rates against specific dangerous pathogens.
In many cases, foaming is the most effective application method as it increases surface contact time on ceilings, walls and other vertical surfaces. (Watch foaming process here.) Other application methods include spraying, mopping and scrubbing by hand.
Are there dangers to livestock and humans from these techniques? Just as the processing plant owners are learning now, there are always advances in methods and solutions which can improve the operating environment through both efficiency and safety. Some older practices commonly used in swine barns include white-washing surfaces with lime and/or spraying caustic chemicals in the bleach family on surfaces.
For poultry barns, the standby has been fogging with formaldehyde — a highly toxic and corrosive chemical. These techniques can absolutely pose harm to livestock and humans if not carefully managed and monitored. The residue and runoff can also be toxic and must be carefully contained and managed.
Newer, hydrogen-peroxide-based chemical solutions have proven to be much safer for animals and workers. These products also have far fewer residual or runoff impacts. These chemicals do the needed work and typically quickly decay to inert runoff. I would never recommend workers ingest even these chemicals, but the risk of harm to people or livestock from exposure is far less than that with older methods.
What are some key considerations for selecting the most appropriate product and application strategy for a production barn? Maintaining a safe work environment that is free of livestock pathogens is paramount for producers. New solutions such as those offered by JBI can address these requirements.
Other factors that are wise to consider relate to the service life of physical infrastructure and environmental impacts, as well as any regulatory issues.
The physical structures and equipment within the production barns are the capital assets which enable the business to operate. These durable assets should last for years and provide good service. However, when regularly exposed to corrosives, such as lime or formaldehyde, the service life can be significantly reduced. Such repeated exposure can destroy surface integrity of metal, concrete and masonry. The resulting breakdown of surfaces can open fissures which promote corrosion and decay. These micro-cracks can also provide safe harbor for infectious bugs during future disinfection applications.
Managing runoff of toxins is another issue operators should consider when selecting products and processes. Water quality monitoring and management are priorities for many local and state governments. While much attention is payed to the risk of manure runoff from hog confinements, oversight of runoff including lime and other environmental toxins which can disrupt the natural pH balance of land and waterways is becoming more common. Hydrogen-peroxide-based disinfectants we have available resolve these environmental concerns. The active chemicals break down after about eight hours and essentially become a combination of nonpotable water and inactive organic matter.
My best advice to livestock producers is to consult with a biosecurity expert and learn about practices that will best meet the needs of their operation. To learn more about biosecurity, production facility disinfection and sanitization, visit jbidistributors.com/.
Stafford writes from Ames, Iowa.