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Email Content: Poultry Industry News, Comments and more by Simon M. Shane

Reopening U.S. Packing Plants: Political Expediency or Economic Necessity?


Following the Presidential Executive Order on April 28th directing meat plants to continue operation during the COVID pandemic, Secretary of Agriculture Dr. Sonny Perdue predicted that 85 percent of capacity will be online during the second week of May.  Fourteen beef, pork and poultry plants have resumed operations after shutdowns to reconfigure lines, test workers and to carry out decontamination.


The prerequisite for reopening plants was that they should conform to the CDC standards indicating best production practices to prevent transmission of COVID-19 within facilities.  It must be noted that there is considerable interaction between plants and the community with respect to transmission.  Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates that there is a close correlation between the prevalence rate in a plant and in the surrounding community affecting the prevalence of COVID-19 in a specific rural county with a large facility.  Notwithstanding the CDC and OSHA regulations, it appears that considerable latitude has been extended to plants in imposition of protective measures. With the stated waiver of responsibility, uniform adoption of the CDC requirements and monitoring conformity by OSHA will be a difficult task. 


Although plants can be reopened, they still require personnel to operate equipment and maintain production.  It is estimated the beef and pork plants operated at 75 percent of capacity during the first week in May up from 65 percent the previous week.


The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) representing 250,000 workers is demanding comprehensive testing for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19 among plant employees.


Mark Perrone, President of the UFCW stated, "the rush by the Trump Administration to reopen fourteen meat packing plants without the urgent safety improvements needed is a reckless move that will put American lives at risk and further endanger the long-term security of our Nation's food supply".  The UFCW is requiring frequent testing of workers, availability of protective equipment and distancing, even on lines. Perrone noted "the administration has failed to take urgent action needed to enact cleaning and enforceable safety standards at these meat packing plants".


Secretary Perdue expects that meat production will be back to normal during the third week of May.  It is apparent that the Administration regards restoration of meat supply both for the domestic market and for exports to be both a political and economic necessity.


Re-establishing production through meat packing plants should alleviate the need to euthanize hogs, relieving farmers of a considerable financial burden with losses for live hogs sold at $60 to $100 per head.  Cattle have accumulated in feedlots with a negative impact through the entire chain from cow-calf operations forwards.


From weekly broiler chick placement data released by the USDA and posted on CHICK-NEWS in the weekly Broiler Volume and Price Report, it would appear that production is trending back to normal levels. Some plants are operating at a lower capacity due to absenteeism associated with either COVID infection or fear of contracting the disease. Both turkey and broiler production were less impacted than in the red meat industry with fewer disruptions. Adequate supplies of both chicken and turkey appeared in supermarkets from mid-May onwards.


Poultry plants affected by COVID-19 included:-

  • Tyson Foods, Robards KY. Reopened after cleaning
  • Empire Kosher. Mifflintown, PA. Reopened late April after Passover break.
  • Sanderson Farms, Moultrie, GA. Reduced production through early May
  • Jennie-O Turkey Store, Wilmar, MN. One plant closed for cleaning. Benson Rd. Wilmar plant and Melrose, MN. plant now operational.
  • Miller Poultry, Orland, IN. Operational after cleaning and testing employees for COVID-19.
  • Tyson Foods, Shelbyville, TN. Reopened late April after cleaning
  • Mountaire Farms, Siler City, NC. No disruption in production following a few diagnoses of COVID-19.
  • Fieldale Farms, Cornelia, GA. Few cases identified among workers.
  • Butterball Inc. Winston-Salem, NC. Few case identified in late April.
  • West Liberty Foods, West Liberty, IA. Reopened mid-April after cleaning and testing workers.

Copyright © 2020 Simon M. Shane