The researchers stored the meat and fish products at both refrigeration (4 degrees Celsius) and freezer temperatures (minus 20 degrees C).
“Although you might not store meat in the fridge for 30 days, you might store it in the freezer for that long,” said study first author Emily S. Bailey, an assistant professor at Campbell University in the US.
“We even found that the viruses could be cultured after (being frozen for) that length of time,” Bailey said in a statement.
The researchers undertook the study after learning that COVID-19 outbreaks were occurring in Southeast Asia prior community transmission.
Reports from those communities “suggested that packaged meat products, produced in areas where SARS-CoV-2 was circulating, could have been the source of the virus,” said Bailey.
“Our goal was to investigate whether or not similar viruses could survive in this environment,” she said.
The research is important because SARS-CoV-2 can replicate within the gut, as well as in the respiratory tract, said Bailey.
In the study, the researchers used one RNA virus with a lipid envelop, and two animal coronaviruses, murine hepatitis virus, and transmissible gastroenteritis virus as surrogates.
All three viruses have previously been used as surrogates for SARS-CoV-2, generally with greater reductions in their numbers observed at refrigeration than at freezing temperatures.
The reduction in numbers also varied according to the food item used.
“Continued efforts are needed to prevent contamination of foods and food processing surfaces, worker hands, and food processing utensils such as knives,” the researchers noted.
“The lack of, or inadequate, disinfection of these foods prior to packaging needs to be addressed,” they added.