About a year-and-a-half ago, the heart of America’s broiler industry was in the national spotlight.
COVID-19 had hit home nationwide and regionally, and Delmarva’s poultry industry emerged as a hot spot for positive tests.
Now, amid the spread of the omicron variant, production and processing continue, in efforts to keep grocery stores — and family refrigerators — stocked.
It’s a balancing act, and two of the region’s poultry giants — Perdue and Mountaire Farms — continue to navigate through the pandemic, enlisting precautionary measures to keep workers safe, while also maintaining efficiency.
“Right now, we continue to process chicken with a dedicated workforce that comes to work every day,” said Catherine Bassett, director of communications/community relations for Mountaire, headquartered in Millsboro.
It’s also status quo at Salisbury, Maryland-based Perdue, which has several facilities in the area.
“We are seeing an increase in cases after the holidays proportional to the surrounding communities where we have operations,” said company spokeswoman Diana Souder. “While the ongoing pandemic has created challenges for all industries, we’ve been able to make certain adjustments to continue safely running our operations to help keep our nation fed, including SKU rationalization, stringent production planning and streamlining production where possible by prioritizing key products and/or temporarily suspending production of others in an effort to drive efficiency.”
The Delaware Division of Public Health reported 1,248 COVID-19 cases in which the positive individual identified as working in the poultry industry, since the start of the pandemic through Friday. That data includes state residents who work in either Delaware or Maryland facilities, said DPH media relations coordinator Tim Turane.
During the pandemic, there have been seven COVID-19-related deaths of Delaware poultry workers, DPH reports.
While vaccination is not mandatory at Mountaire or Perdue, workers are encouraged to get inoculated.
“Mountaire has not mandated the vaccine but has worked hard (to) ensure our employees have every opportunity to get the vaccine on-site if they choose that option,” said Ms. Bassett. “We have vaccinated 100% of the employees who want to be vaccinated.”
Ms. Souder added, “In accordance with the COVID-19 emergency temporary standard from (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), we have created a roster of our associates’ vaccination status and are generally seeing vaccination rates in line with surrounding communities where we have operation.
“As we evaluate the COVID-19 ETS from OSHA, we are continuing to educate our associates about the importance of receiving the vaccine and enforcing (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines to keep them safe.”
Mountaire notes that it has taken steps to enhance the workplace environment. Additionally, emphasis is placed on self-defense to limit spread of the virus, coupled with proper personal hygiene.
“We’ve never really let our guard down at Mountaire, so we continue to be vigilant about things like face masks, hand washing and social distancing,” said Ms. Bassett. “And our investments into the safety of our workforce have helped, as well, like the installation of hospital-grade air-filtration systems in every single facility we own.”
She added, “We continue to randomly test our employees and offer the COVID vaccine to all new employees and those who are still considering it.”
Perdue, likewise, said it is following all safety guidelines, sometimes going an extra step.
“Since the onset of COVID-19 in the U.S., Perdue’s top priority has been the health and well-being of our associates and surrounding communities,” said Ms. Souder. “We continue to enforce safety guidelines from the CDC, which we will keep in place for the foreseeable future. We have made the vaccine available to all of our associates through local health care partners, as well as the Wellness Centers that are on-site at our facilities, which are free to all of our associates and their families.”
Production fairly constant
Based on weekly placement of broiler chicks, which is data kept by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, poultry production on Delmarva has remained fairly regular during the pandemic.
On Jan. 1, 4,581,000 chicks were placed in Delaware, down slightly from the Jan. 2, 2021, number of 4,602,000. The number of broilers placed in the state Jan. 2, 2020, was 5,196,000.
According to the Delmarva Chicken Association, the region’s poultry community in 2020 raised 570 million chickens, produced 4.2 billion pounds of shelf– and table-ready chicken and generated $3.4 billion in value.
Those 570 million birds represented a 6% decrease from the previous year, while the $3.4 billion represented a one-year decrease of 5%.
DCA reports that the poultry industry has persevered through multiple challenges created by the pandemic. However, though 2021 data is not yet available, economic contractions and supply chain issues in the second quarter of 2020 restricted chicken production and delayed expected income for many farmers raising chickens last year.