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Business

Coronavirus outbreaks at processors force NC farmers to start killing 1.5M chickens

 

Farmers statewide have started euthanizing 1.5 million chickens because of coronavirus-related slowdowns in the meat processing plants, a top agriculture official said Friday.

It is the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic that North Carolina farmers have had to take the drastic step of euthanizing, or depopulating, their animals, Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Joe Reardon told The News & Observer.

Roughly a third of the chickens already have been killed, Reardon said. He did not identify the counties where chickens are being killed, saying it is “farm specific.”

North Carolina is home to roughly 170 million to 190 million chickens and turkeys, he said.

Depopulation is “the very last thing that any of these farmers would ever want to do, so it would be a last resort,” Reardon said, “But the continued lack of processing capacity over a long period of time with this ‘just in time’ process that we have on animal production, puts us in this very untenable situation.”

“Just in time” refers to the tight schedule that delivers the nation’s food supply — from the farm to the factory, and from the factory to the packing plant and distributor — just as it is needed at the grocery store, restaurant or institution.

That’s why some grocery store shelves were stripped bare in early March, as shoppers engaged in panic buying when the first stay-at-home orders were issued and processors struggled to keep up with the demand. Local and regional processing facilities that butcher meat products for farm-to-consumer sales also were overwhelmed.

Workers and their advocates said the meat industry compounded the problem by responding slowly with protective equipment and physical distancing. More employees concerned they might get sick and take the virus home to their families started skipping work.

Chickens, hogs killed nationwide

While depopulation and disposal methods are commonly used during an outbreak of animal disease or a natural disaster, this is the first time N.C. farmers have had to kill their livestock because of COVID-19 outbreaks in the meat processing plants. The state defines an outbreak as two or more positive cases in a facility.

The agriculture department is providing technical advice to farmers who have to kill and compost the chickens or render them down for use in animal feed, Reardon said. Mass quantities of chickens commonly are gassed or suffocated with a water-based foam. The carcasses then are layered with straw in the houses and cooked under a high heat for about a month to create compost that can be applied to fields.

The state legislature has set aside $15 million from a $1.57 billion federal aid package for the potential depopulation of surplus hogs and chickens. The state has applied for FEMA reimbursement if any of that money is spent.

Other states already have killed over 10 million chickens because farmers ran out of time to get them to market, The Guardian reported this week. It noted that the pork industry has said 10 million hogs could be killed by September.

North Carolina hog farmers have not taken steps toward depopulation yet, Reardon said.

Although some critics of depopulation have said the surplus meat could help food pantries across the nation that have seen a growing need, agriculture officials said that is not possible because the animals still have to be processed for human consumption. Many local food pantries can’t store large amounts of meat.

Animal welfare groups also have stepped in to save some livestock, although the number being killed far outweighs what most groups can take on. The California nonprofit Animal Place, for instance, recently saved 1,000 hens from an Iowa egg farm. However, that was only a portion of the 140,000 hens slated for depopulation.

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Processing plants critical

The coronavirus outbreaks in North Carolina’s processing facilities didn’t take off until mid-April, a couple of weeks after other states reported outbreaks and started to close their plants.

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services officials said Thursday that 2,006 workers in 26 processing plants across the state have tested positive for coronavirus. Although some plants have closed temporarily to clean and disinfect, none have shut down in North Carolina.

Chicken producers also took a hit when they were forced to modify processing equipment to make a smaller, consumer product instead of a bulk case, N.C. Poultry Federation executive director Bob Ford has said.

On May 6, Reardon estimated in an interview that the state’s meat production had declined by 35% to 45%. On Friday, he estimated production was now reduced by about 30% to 40%.

A truck driver examines empty cages inside the Mountaire Farms poultry processing in Siler City, N.C. on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. As of May 13, there were 74 confirmed cases among plant workers and their families, and according to NCDHHS data the Siler City ZIP code of 27344 had 302 coronavirus cases, the most per ZIP code in the state. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

In part, Reardon said, that is because North Carolina poultry and hog farmers started adjusting what they feed livestock to slow their growth. Poultry farmers also destroyed eggs being incubated to breed more chickens, which typically go to market after two months on the farm.

Hogs and chickens that grow too large to fit in the processing machines cannot be sold, and the meat from an older chicken also is too tough to sell to consumers, Reardon has said.

Changes on the farm, increased testing, and the implementing U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations at processing plants, such as masks and glass shields between work stations, could bring a turnaround soon to the industry, Reardon said.

Some Midwestern plants that had closed are restarting production, he said.

“We hope that continues, but we also are aware that to maintain and increase that capacity depends on continuing to reduce absenteeism, continuing to provide the testing to identify those that may be positive, as well as to offer a sense of assurance to those others working in the environments that in fact everything is being done to ensure and maintain their health and maintain the environments in which they work,” Reardon said.

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