Processors struggle to stay on top of demand
A woman who works in the packaging department at Old Line Custom Meat Co. in Baltimore showed up to work April 14 with a fever. She was immediately quarantined.
About five days later, she finally received a test for coronavirus, and the result was positive. Then another woman in the same department developed mild symptoms and also tested positive. On April 20, company president Bill Ruppersberger offered his 60-plus employees the option to work or go home.
“That pretty much cooked it for us because most people did not want to come in, which was understandable,” he said.
Now, Ruppersberger is working with a skeleton crew of about four to process the meat in his freezers as the company waits to see when it can welcome back its staff without infection. Old Line is one of several processors in the region struggling over the last month to operate in a world run by the coronavirus.
Meat processors described unsustainably busy hours and a work environment of new precautionary measures meant to halt the spread of the pandemic, which as of April 22 had infected more than 820,000 Americans and killed more than 46,000.
Massive meatpacking plants across the country received a great deal of media attention this month after coronavirus breakouts closed several of them, including a Smithfield facility in South Dakota that handles 5 percent of all U.S. pork production. Experts fear breakouts could become a severe problem for the processing industry.
In the Delmarva region, processing facilities are comparatively tiny. Jeff Haass, owner of Haass’ Family Butcher Shop in Dover, Del., said he’s been astounded at the demand for meat from ordinary consumers. There was an order for three 40-pound cases of chicken, one for 5-10 pounds of bacon, another for 40-50 pounds of ground beef.
“It’s not like, ‘I want two steaks.’ It’s, ‘I want 10 steaks. Twenty steaks.’” Haass said. “I’m working 60 to 70 hours per week.”
With all the hazards associated with meat processing, he said it’s become critical to rest his 20-plus employees. He’s developed a rotating schedule to include days off “so I don’t burn them out,” he said.
To lower the risk of catching the virus, Wagner’s Meats in Mt. Airy, Md., did everything recommended by Gov. Larry Hogan after he ordered the entire state to lock down, shuttering all schools and non-essential businesses, owner Mickey Wagner said. All employees now wear face masks. Plastic shields have been erected in the register area to better separate employees from customers. Lines have been drawn onto the floor showing customers where to stand and create buffers between them. And the store closes everyday from 11 p.m. to 1 p.m. for sanitizing and restocking.
Like Haass, Wagner began to worry about safety on the line as customer orders poured in and employees worked 12-hour days. He’s hoping everything slows down.
“That’s why I had to change the hours because we were killing ourselves,” he said. “It’s definitely been good for business, but it’s not my kind of business.”
Orders was so brisk at Sudlersville Meat Locker in Queen Anne’s County, Md., owner Dwayne Nickerson had to cut back on his custom cutting for farmers and other customers while he tried to keep up with his own retail operation. His facility was getting 400-700 orders every four days.
“I’m trying to be fair to everyone,” he said. “Most (farmers) have been very understanding. They understand what we’re dealing with.”
Even before the coronavirus arrived, the lack of meat processing capacity in the region was widely bemoaned. Now, the virus is exacerbating the problem, said Richard Wilkins, president of the Delaware Farm Bureau. He said he’s received several calls from farmers who have complained about canceled appointments at regional slaughterhouses — even after months-long waits.
“We’re hoping that this situation will bring to the forefront the need for increased capacity for custom processing of locally raised and locally consumed meat,” Wilkins said.
The Southern Maryland Agricultural Commission has been trying to boost capacity in its region for years. Hertzler’s Meat, a new Amish slaughterhouse in St. Mary’s County, Md., could be ready to open in four to six weeks, said Craig Sewell, the commission’s marketing and livestock program manager.
Ruppersberger said he hopes the virus in Maryland is reaching its peak so that business in the state can begin to normalize. His company is contacting its employees every day to get health updates. He doesn’t regret slowing his plant to a crawl.
“I just didn’t think it was the right thing to keep going the way we were going,” he said.
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