Poultry companies scramble to react to large number of worker illnesses
A month ago, the Eastern Shore’s poultry industry was humming along, responding to a sudden nationwide surge in meat sales caused by the coronavirus. Industry experts suggested farmers could soon see shorter layouts as production rose to meet demand.
“It could be positive unless something bad happens in a plant,” Jonathan Moyle, a University of Maryland Extension agent, told the Delmarva Farmer. “But again that’s a worst-case scenario. Let’s hope that never happens.”
Almost immediately, the worst happened. Now that the virus has infected hundreds of poultry plant workers across the Shore, slowing production lines, farmers and industry leaders are struggling to manage the aftermath.
“Growers are under a lot of stress right now,” Moyle said last week. “(Integrators) can’t give them a straight answer because they don’t know how the processing’s going to go.”
While some growers haven’t been affected, others may soon experience longer layouts between flocks and smaller bird placements, said Holly Porter, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
“I think early on, people thought, ‘Oh, this might not be bad,’” she said. “But quickly, it changed directions.”
Maryland state officials announced on May 1 that nearly 300 poultry workers tested positive for the virus. One reportedly died. Another from Virginia did as well. Some plant workers are taking time off or not showing up to work out of fear, officials said.
Processing plants have remained open since President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meat plants as essential infrastructure on April 29 to forestall shortages. But shortages have already hit grocery stores, and analysts last week predicted pork and beef prices could rise as much as 20 percent compared to last year.
The Centers for Disease Control sent two teams to the Shore late last month to evaluate poultry plants in Maryland and Virginia, which have seen a disproportionate share of infections. Both teams will provide reports to each state, but as of last week they were still conducting their assessments, said Jason McDonald, a CDC spokesperson.
Plant outbreaks have been a contributing factor to a rash of infections in Wicomico County, Md., where Perdue is headquartered. More than 500 people in the county have contracted the virus and 13 died as of May 7. Surrounding counties had fewer than 100 infections.
Perdue declined to release how many of its workers have been infected, but the company has implemented social distancing measures and is doing temperature checks of all employees before they enter processing facilities, said Diana Souder, a company spokesperson. Their attendance policies are now more flexible, they’re providing facemasks and they’ve erected partitions between workers where social distancing is impossible, she said.
“I would say that our number one focus really is the safety of our associates, the issue of protecting them and keeping them safe, so they can serve in those roles that the federal government” has deemed critical, Souder said.
Of the Shore’s 11 poultry processing facilities, Perdue owns four. The company hasn’t had to depopulate flocks, she said, but it is removing some eggs from hatcheries and placing fewer birds with growers. Allen Harim was forced to depopulate about 2 million birds due to a slowdown in processing last month.
“We’re also looking at ways we can make our growers whole,” Souder said. “We don’t want anyone in our business to have to suffer seriously from this.”
Virgil Shockley, a Worcester County, Md., grower for Tyson Foods, said he’s seen other farmers’ layouts grow up to 50 days in some cases. Over the last three months, he said he’s lost a complete flock of chickens. More troubling to him, however, is the decline in grain prices. Soybeans are less than $8.50. Corn is less than $3.50.
“It kind of makes it hard to break even,” he said. “Right now it’s a survival game. Cut whatever you can in order to be around next year.”
A group of 18 U.S. senators pressed the USDA in a May 1 letter to provide financial assistance to chicken farmers coping with shifting, uncertain demand. They’ve been left out of previous coronavirus assistance programs, DPI said.
Shockley said he appreciates the gesture.
“The way I look at it, if you get the money, that’s great, but I’m not expecting that much,” he said.
If anything, he’s glad he hasn’t been asked to put chickens down.
“I think it’s very heartbreaking that those chickens had to be put down,” he said. “It’s going to be tough for those farms to come back.”
Moyle said he continues to hope the poultry industry has seen the worst of the virus.
“I’m hoping it’s a minimal blip, and we keep on going just like everybody else is doing,” he said. “I do see companies trying harder to communicate with their growers and let them know they’re appreciated, and they’re going to get through this. Some companies are.”
Souder thanked growers and plant workers.
“We’re just so extremely grateful to everyone on the front lines… of the food supply chain who are working to keep America fed,” she said. “It’s becoming more evident than ever what essential really means, and we’re so grateful for them.”
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