Following the multiweek closure of JBS Souderton and the closing of a Cargill Meat Solutions packing plant in Hazleton, Pa., there is hope that the worst of COVID-19’s effects on the Northeast meat processing industry are over.
“We’re cautiously optimistic. Most of those facilities are back up and running at some capacity,” says Chris Herr, vice president of PennAg Industries, which represents agribusinesses in the state.
JBS Souderton, which kills 2,500 head of cattle a day and is the largest beef slaughter plant east of Chicago, partially closed at the end of March due to employees getting sick with COVID-19 and just reopened in mid-April. At least one employee of the plant is reported to have died of respiratory failure brought on by COVID-19, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
At least 164 employees of Cargill Meat Solutions in Hazleton, Pa., got sick with the virus, leading to the plant’s closure. The plant, which packages meat for supermarkets, has at least 900 workers. Daniel Sullivan, spokesman for Cargill, says the plant has reopened with new safety guidelines.
Other plants, including poultry and pork processing plants, ran lighter shifts as many workers didn’t show up, Herr says, adding that processors have been working hard to get facilities back up and running to shore up the animal production system.
Some companies have offered incentives to employees to come to work while at the same time more aggressively screening employees, providing personal protective equipment and making changes to production lines to encourage social distancing.
The recent announcement that food workers were eligible for priority COVID-19 testing will greatly increase turnaround time for test results. When the pandemic broke out, workers with symptoms got tested and waited up to seven days for results. With expedited testing, the results come back within 24 hours, he says.
Unlike some Midwest hog operations that have had to euthanize pigs, Herr says that hasn’t happened in Pennsylvania, which is home to Clemens Food Group, owners of Hatfield Quality Meats and Country View Family Farms. Some farms, though, have adjusted the diets of their hogs, some of which are being kept past their optimal weight to relieve pressure on processing lines.
Herr says there has also been more aggressive culling of nursery pigs and low-production sows, but no widespread euthanization or culling.
Struggles for poultry
Some layer houses, though, have been depopulated in Pennsylvania, and at least one large Kosher poultry processing plant in Mifflintown was closed for cleaning after workers there tested positive for COVID-19.
The state’s commercial live bird market, which supplies around 100 live bird markets in New York City, has taken a big hit by the closure of these markets as well as the closure of a processing facility in New Jersey.
Herr says that Valley Proteins Inc., a rendering firm with several locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, has been taking spent fowl for rendering as the market for oil and grease from restaurants has all but collapsed.
At least one poultry integrator on the Delmarva Peninsula, Allen Harim, depopulated houses in early April — euthanizing at least 2 million birds— due to employees either not showing up for work at processing plants or getting sick from COVID-19.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention field team is currently on the ground in Delmarva to help address the outbreak. A statement by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan late last week stated that 279 poultry workers in Maryland had tested positive for COVID-19, and that the case rate in Wicomico County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was the fourth highest in the state, ahead of Baltimore.
Holly Porter, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. (DPI), says that last week’s order by President Donald Trump to keep meat processing facilities open will bring uniformity in state regulations and safety standards, something she says is needed at Delmarva since the industry operates in three states.
Porter says that none of the other poultry integrators have depopulated flocks, but plants have put in additional measures to keep workers safe such as mandatory temperature checks and protective barriers on processing lines.
She says the industry has gotten more personal protective equipment, but more of it might be needed if the outbreak gets worse.
“This crisis is sorely testing Delmarva’s chicken community — our more than 20,000 chicken company employees, the more than 1,300 farmers who raise chickens here, and the scores of allied businesses we rely on,” according to a DPI statement.
Inconsistencies in enforcing CDC guidelines is something that’s been a problem in other poultry production areas, according to a statement by Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council, which supports Trump’s order.
“Our industry is following all CDC, USDA and OSHA guidelines, and many have consulted with infectious disease physicians to develop site plans,” the statement reads. “Companies began weeks ago enacting additional measures to keep workers safe, such as increased cleaning and sanitation of the plants, temperature checks before entering facilities, social distancing measures, installing plastic dividers between work stations, paid leave for sick or at-risk employees, issuing masks, and other personal protective gear, among many others measures.
“While doing everything we can to keep employees safe and healthy, the biggest challenge has been inconsistencies among the states and many localities in enforcing CDC guidelines in plants that add to confusion and can lead to unnecessary shutdowns. This patchwork approach is posing grave risk to the supply chain and threatening great disruption to NCC member companies. There must be a uniform approach across all states, and we are hopeful that today’s announcement is a good first step in achieving that goal.”