The poultry industry is one of Delmarva’s biggest businesses, but as COVID-19 spread across the region, workers left the plants, threatening the area’s food supply.
Holly Porter, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, said the industry has adopted an aggressive testing strategy, but the COVID-19 cases were not as high on Delmarva as in plants in other areas of the country. Workers are beginning to come back to work and bring the plants back to near-full capacity.
When COVID-19 reached Delaware, the first casualty was the marketplace, as 50 percent of the local industry’s market was lost when restaurants, schools and institutions were closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Porter said this was the first phase of COVID effects on the industry.
“Markets and investments for processing do not occur overnight. They occur over many, many years. Over the last 10 years you see more and more people eating out. That’s why so much of our markets were restaurants and our institutions,” she said.
Porter said chicken processors tailor their product to the market.
“If you were selling to a restaurant or a large institution, you were probably packing your chicken in 10-pound bags, and you were shipping those in 40-pound boxes. As a consumer, we walk into the grocery store, and you are buying 1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast. If your processing plant was set up for those institutions, you may not have the materials you need to move forward,” Porter said.
She said the second phase of COVID affected workers, many of whom stayed home as the virus worked its way across the state. Porter said this wasn’t limited to fear of catching the virus at work, but employees also stayed home because their kids were no longer in school and daycares were closed.
Porter said an immediate effect of this phase was the decision by Allen Harim to slaughter 2 million chickens before processing because the company would not have enough workers to process all the chickens coming in. She said in other circumstances, Allen Harim may have looked to move its birds to another plant or render the birds for animal feed, but the other chicken companies were facing the same pressures.
Porter said the companies have adjusted to keep the supply chain moving, through increasing production for grocery stores, selling chicken directly to consumers and donating.
The third phase occurred, she said, when positive cases turned up at the plants. Exactly how many positive cases have been found at the plants is mostly unknown, primarily because the state’s Division of Public Health has not divulged that information.
Perdue has admitted only two employees tested positive at its Milford plant, and Mountaire had a positive case at its Selbyville plant. Porter said anecdotally, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, which has plants run by Tyson and Perdue, once testing ramped up, roughly 18 percent positive cases were found at the two plants She said in Delaware, the percentages have been lower.
The industry has taken measures for worker safety, Porter said, including increased sanitation, social distancing measures, dividers for employees on lines who cannot be 6 feet apart, screening employees as they enter the building, and bonus pay and paid sick leave.
Porter said the fourth phase is testing, and all the processing plants on Delmarva have completed or are completing PCR or diagnostic testing for COVID. The PCR test takes a sample from a person’s nose and can detect if someone is actively infected. It is considered the most reliable test, although test results can take a few days to come back.
“The good news is that the results we are seeing is that many people who are testing positive are asymptomatic. Those are people who had no symptoms whatsoever, and we wouldn’t have known that they were even carriers of the virus. But now that we do, those people can be self-quarantined and isolated,” Porter said.
She said the chicken companies have largely paid for the testing.
The fifth and final phase, Porter said, is reopening.
“In talking to many of the companies, the absentee numbers have been decreasing, which means more people are coming back to work, which means our processing plants are going to be able to pick up and process within capacity,” she said. “The demand for chicken is certainly there.”
Porter said in 2019, Delmarva’s chicken industry processed 609 million chickens, translating to 4.3 billion pounds of chicken. Overall, Delmarva has 1,300 farmers growing chickens, with 650 located in Delaware, she said. The chicken industry on Delmarva employed 20,000 people across five companies - Allen Harim, Tyson, Amick Farms, Mountaire and Perdue. Of the 10 chicken plants in Delmarva, six of them are in Delaware, Porter said.
She said she did not see major changes for the industry, as far as worker safety issues, in a post-COVID world, because the industry was already doing many of the measures that have been put in place during the pandemic. Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are typically on-site and employees wear hard hats, boot covers, protective suits, gloves, goggles and hair nets. Porter said the only real change was employees are now wearing face shields.
Perdue spokeswoman Diana Souder said the company is working with the CDC and local health teams to assess the needs and actions to protect workers at all of its plants. The company has been holding virtual town halls to provide details on safety measures and to hear concerns from the community.
Perdue Vice President of Human Resources Tracy Morris said, “The health and safety of our associates is our No. 1 priority. On these webinars, we wanted to ensure that the local leaders in these communities had a good understanding of the safety measures we’ve put in place, give them the opportunity to ask us questions directly, and know they can call us if they have an idea that will further bolster our efforts to protect our associates and neighbors.”
At the end of the day, Porter was optimistic about the future of the industry.
“I think there’s some light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.