As pepperoni prices spike around the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has offered a supply of free meat-free pizza toppings to two pizzerias in Yankton and Vermillion, South Dakota. The goal is to encourage the pizzerias to offer more vegan items on their menus.

In a press release, PETA said it has extended the offer to Brandon King, owner of R-Pizza in Vermillion, and Nick Johnson, manager of Charlie’s Pizza House in Yankton.

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R-Pizza and Charlie’s Pizza House were both referenced in a recent Bloomberg article about higher pepperoni prices. That article noted that R-Pizza had been forced to change pepperoni brands to save money.

PETA said it has sent letters to those pizzerias “urging them to use vegan pepperoni and cheese instead of the meat and dairy versions” and would provide “a supply of the animal-free toppings to get them started.”

The PETA release attempts to tie meat toppings to COVID-19, swine flu, bird flu and SARS as well as “a new strain of swine flu with ‘pandemic potential’ [that] is now spreading from pigs to humans in China.”

“Considering other aspects of the pandemic, such as that zoonotic diseases may originate in live-animal markets and on factory farms, the national pepperoni shortage is an opportunity to rethink the pie and make it vegan,” PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said in the press release. “PETA is encouraging pizzerias to pivot to plants and leave meat and dairy toppings in the past.”

Many meat-packing plants in the U.S. have reported outbreaks of COVID-19, with more than 25,000 employees from 238 plants in 33 states infected with the coronavirus and at least 91 deaths, Forbes reported in June. The pandemic has resulted in labor shortages at some plants, which has reportedly led to higher pepperoni prices.

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However, the Forbes article, penned by Victoria Forster, a cancer research scientist, notes that it’s doubtful that meat packed at these plants can spread the coronavirus.

“Meat is probably not a big risk,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, told Forbes. “There is no evidence of food-borne transmission.”

Meat toppings are cooked at temperatures that kill potentially harmful microbes. “So any meat cooked to [CDC-recommended] temperatures should have no viable SARS-COV2 left even if it is on raw meat,” Forster writes.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) agrees. “Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that handling food or consuming food is associated with COVID-19,” the CDC’s website states. It adds that coronaviruses, such as the one that causes COVID-19, “are thought to spread mostly person-to-person through respiratory droplets when someone coughs, sneezes or talks. It is possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, including food or food packaging, that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes. However, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

“The risk of getting COVID-19 from food, treated drinking water or food packaging is very low,” the CDC states. It adds, “However, it is important to safely handle and continue to cook foods to their recommended temperatures to prevent foodborne illness.”

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