Cornell collaborating with food processors to stem COVID effects


ITHACA — A Cornell University-led project will use computer modeling and outreach to find optimal strategies to minimize COVID-19 cases and transmission among workers in food processing facilities, while maintaining the best possible production.

The project comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the nation’s food supply, in part due to food industry workers falling ill, which reduces the workforce and can lead to temporary facility shut-downs.

Cornell researchers plan to collaborate with a dozen meat, dairy and produce industry partners to explore potential solutions in real-world settings.

“This is a problem that requires rapid solutions, we need to solve this right now,” project principal investigator Renata Ivanek, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences, said in a news release.

According to Cornell, industry partners include Ohio-based Great Lakes Cheese, which has a plant in Adams; processors Misionero Vegetables, Del Monte Foods, Seneca Foods Corporation and Taylor Farms and poultry, beef and pork processor Tyson Foods.

“Part of the project is to investigate how segments of the food production industry differ and how to develop control strategies that will fit a specific industry segment,” Ms. Ivanek said.

Once a model has been developed and validated, it will be scaled up and applied in several specific facilities to further validate it in real world settings.

Though the hope is that the pandemic will be quelled in the next year, Ms. Ivanek said the project will address current issues while also providing insights for any future disease outbreaks.

Cornell notes that food production is an essential industry. Keeping workers safe is a priority and a challenge since they often need to work in close proximity to each other, increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Many companies have tried to address the risk by shutting down a portion of their production lines and adding Plexiglass dividers but this reduces production capacity. Adding to the complexity, Cornell says, is that facilities are all unique.

Outreach will include courses on COVID-19, its biology and how to control it. The Institute for Food Safety at Cornell University has already begun some of this work, including information-sharing office hours that food processing facility managers may virtually join to engage with COVID-19 experts on topics such as safety training for employees and using checklists to assess a facility’s safety plan.

The project was made possible with a two-year, $1 million rapid-response grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Part of the project is to investigate how segments of the food production industry differ and how to develop control strategies that will fit a specific industry segment,” Ms. Ivanek said.

In March, Cornell’s Institute for Food Safety has created a comprehensive website for commercial processors: “Food Industry Resources for Coronavirus.” Information on the site ranges from general industry guidance to training videos for food processing employees.

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