- About 2 million chickens at one processor were "depopulated" — killed but not processed for meat — because the coronavirus pandemic has closed so many plants that there are not enough employees to process them, according to a statement The Baltimore Sun received from trade group Delmarva Poultry Industry.
- The group, which represents 1,800 poultry producers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, says farmers are running out of space for their chickens. "With reduced staffing, many plants are not able to harvest chickens at the pace they planned . . . before any COVID-19 quarantine and social distancing measures took effect," said the statement quoted by The Washington Post. "This leads to more birds waiting on chicken farms to be harvested than plants have capacity to harvest and process. If no action were taken, the birds would outgrow the chicken house to hold them."
- The producer is not named by the trade group, but The Sun believes it is Delaware farmer Allen Harim based on animal rights groups' online posts. Similar depopulation actions have been taken in the past for avian influenza outbreaks.
While medical experts have said that coronavirus rarely passes from humans to animals, the pandemic's impact on animals is beginning to be felt.
Meat producers nationwide are beginning to feel the strain of animals getting large enough for slaughter, but having nowhere to go because processing plants have been shut down. Several of the country's largest meat plants are currently closed to stop deadly coronavirus outbreaks, which have spread among employees. The closures have led major meat producers Smithfield and Tyson to warn of the possibility of meat shortages, since there is a lack of places and people to process it.
Not only are consumers seeing the impact of plant closures through empty shelves in the meat department, but producers are feeling the impact with more crowded farms. And although only one chicken producer is reporting taking depopulation measures, the strain is apparent throughout animal farming.
Pork producers have also been weighing depopulation. In Minnesota, the second largest pork-producing state, Minnesota Pork Board CEO David Preisler told MinnPost the national processing capacity is down by more than 100,000 hogs per day. As pigs get larger and farms run out of space, Preisler told the news website that Minnesota may be forced to depopulate 200,000 hogs in the next few weeks.
And Iowa, the nation's largest producer of pork, is seeing a similar strain. State officials told the Des Moines Register the state's pork producers have lost about 40% of their production capacity, meaning about 400,000 hogs that are ready to become food for the nation have nowhere to go. Some are feeding their hogs a leaner diet, while others are shipping them to prisons to be processed by inmates, the Duluth News Tribune reported.
The bottleneck caused by lack of processing capacity hurts everyone deeper.
"The food system stoppages are now beginning to show up as increasing meat shortages in grocery stores which will inevitably lead to consumer fear and the obscene situation of higher food prices as animals and food are destroyed on the farm and ranch. This is unacceptable," South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds wrote in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence last week.
Rounds is advocating for several policies to help the industry. He wants the federal government to provide clarity on how to keep meat processing going amid the pandemic. He's also looking for federal funds to compensate farmers who are forced to euthanize their animals.
Rounds isn't the only one advocating for farmers. A joint letter from Minnesota senators Amy Klobuchar and Mike Lee asks the Justice Department, USDA and Commodity Futures Trading Commission for help in ensuring potential food is not wasted.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds did something similar in her state, establishing a "Pass the Pork" program that connects producers with excess hogs with food banks. It will begin operation on May 1.
And the federal government is also starting to get involved. To mitigate the situation, USDA created a National Incident Coordination Center late last week to help farmers find alternative markets for animal meat. If needed, the federal department will advise and assist on depopulation and disposal methods.
It seems that what happens next with meat animals rests squarely on the shoulders of policymakers. Through social distancing policies, people are doing what they can to slow the spread of coronavirus and keep the meat industry going. As animals will continue to grow, more decisions need to be made on a fast basis to try to shore up farmers' finances and the country's meat supply.