Antigen testing offers food plants extra safety

There was a steady stream of workers climbing the stairs to be clogged for rapid antigen testing of Covid-19 at Dawn Farm Foods, a production plant in Naas, Co Kildare, on Monday.

As infections began to increase during this fourth wave, the company went from testing hundreds of employees once to twice a week – every Monday and Thursday.

The goal of the screening program, which has been in operation since March, is to capture potential cases of the disease before one infected person could cause a super-spreading event.

“Having the antigen testing has just added another layer to feel that we have a safety net here that we will quickly catch people if they just don’t know they are unwell,” says Nick Andrews, head of food safety and Covid defense. with the company.

With the latest wave of infection showing no sign of declining, despite high vaccinations, the National Public Health Crisis Team and Government have slowly accepted the use of antigen testing as another tool in the fight against the virus.

Since last month, the Health Service Executive has been sending antigen test kits to fully vaccinated, asymptomatic close contacts of virus cases. The Government plans to extend rapid testing to schools and introduce a subsidy to encourage people to use them more generally.

The experience of antigen testing for food production companies and meat factories has been effective, although they may not be as definitive a diagnostic tool as the PCR tests used in HSE centers.

“I’m not trying to pretend they’re just as sensitive, but in a practical environment. . . we found them a very useful tool, ”says Andrews.

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Three testers from an outside health care company in personal protective equipment (PPE) come and take workers ’swabs three times a day to cover staff in three shifts. There are about 1,000 people working across the expansion facility, including Dawn’s 700 employees.

Nick Andrews, head of food safety and Covid defense at Dawn Farm Foods: Company caught infections by antigen screening in

Nick Andrews, head of food safety and Covid defense at Dawn Farm Foods: A company caught infections by antigen screening on a “very rare occasion”. Photo: Enda O’Dowd

Antigen tests being administered at Dawn Farm.  Photo: Enda O'Dowd

Antigen tests being administered at Dawn Farm. Photo: Enda O’Dowd

The facility is not a meat factory. It makes prepared foods like pepperoni, chorizo, chicken strips and meatballs for food supply companies and restaurants.

Andrews says the company caught infections by antigen screening on a “very rare occasion”, with only a “fraction of a percentage of people” testing positive. He considers the program “another layer of security” in addition to other measures such as social distance, wearing PPE and installing protective barriers and screens.

While public health officials have long been reluctant to accept antigen testing – as they are viewed as less sensitive than PCR testing – it has become a routine part of life at Dawn Farm Foods and and other food production facilities and meat processing facilities.

Just over 100,000 tests were conducted through 42 meat plants and food production facilities between March and September under a program controlled by the Department of Agriculture with test kits supplied by the HSE. In all, 167 people were detected as having the virus.

“I’m pretty sure that would have prevented a bigger explosion,” says Dónal Sammin, director of laboratories in the department that oversees the program.

Risk of recirculation

Sammin considers antigen testing a “risk-reduction tool” at high risk as a food or meat plant, where the recirculation of cool air can result in easier transmission of the virus.

The less invasive nasal laminae used in antigen tests make them a more acceptable form of routine screening for staff. The gag reflex triggered by PCR stones to the back of the throat can make it uncomfortable, especially if needed twice a week.

Sammin thinks antigen testing is a better proxy than the PCR variety to detect people who are more likely to infect others and spread the disease.

“If you get a signal on an antigen test, the likelihood is that you are discarding significant amounts of virus, so you will most likely be transmitting it,” he says.

While Dawn Farm Foods employs a professional contractor, other food companies use controlled self-sampling, which encourages staff to undergo testing.

Andrews says use of the contractor allows Dawn Farm to perform a subsequent PCR test on site to confirm an antigen result. The result is then used to risk assessing the worker – do they live with, travel to work or socialize with other employees? They can then be isolated.

If antigen testing were available last year, it could prevent explosions through food factories in the summer, which caused local blockades in Kildare, Laois and Offaly.

“What was difficult at the time was that there were no tools to really know where you were unless you went for a full PCR exam, which is not easy to do,” says Andrews, who adds that antigen testing allows the company to “notice”. trends soon enough ”.

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