Abstract: The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has presented new challenges to food manufacturers. During the early phase of the pandemic, several large outbreaks of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) occurred in food manufacturing plants resulting in deaths and economic loss, with approximately 15% of personnel diagnosed as asymptomatic for COVID-19. Spread by asymptomatic and presymptomatic individuals has been implicated in large outbreaks of COVID-19. In March 2020, we assisted in implementation of environmental monitoring programs for SARS-CoV-2 in zones 3 and 4 of 116 food production facilities. All participating facilities had already implemented measures to prevent symptomatic personnel from coming to work. During the study period, from 17 March to 3 September 2020, 1.23% of the 22,643 environmental samples tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, suggesting that infected individuals were actively shedding virus. Virus contamination was commonly found on frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, handles, table surfaces, and sanitizer dispensers. Most processing plants managed to control their environmental contamination when they became aware of the positive findings. Comparisons of positive test results for plant personnel and environmental surfaces in one plant revealed a close correlation. Our work illustrates that environmental monitoring for SARS-CoV-2 can be used as a surrogate for identifying the presence of asymptomatic and presymptomatic personnel in workplaces and may aid in controlling infection spread.
Keywords: COVID-19; Environmental monitoring; Food manufacturing; Pandemic; Reverse transcription PCR; SARS-CoV-2.
Published 2021 by the International Association for Food Protection.