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Nearly 2 million chickens at Eastern Shore farms set to be destroyed because of coronavirus-related plant shortages

Nearly 2 million chickens at farms in Maryland and Delaware will be destroyed instead of processed for meat, a result of coronavirus-related staffing shortages at processing plants.

“With reduced staffing, many plants are not able to harvest chickens at the pace they planned for when placing those chicks in chicken houses several weeks ago," before social distancing measures took effect, a trade group for the Delmarva poultry industry said in a statement.

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In some cases more birds are awaiting harvesting than processors can handle, said the group, Delmarva Poultry Industry. One company, which the group did not name, has been left with no other option than to tell some of its growers they would need to “depopulate.”

The trade group declined to identify the company, but animal rights activists who formed a coalition to save the birds believe it is processor Allen Harim and are calling on officials at the Seaford, Delaware-based company to stop the practice.

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Officials at Allen Harim did not return calls seeking comment.

Every poultry plant on the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore as well as Delaware and part of Virginia, has struggled with reduced worker attendance because of cases of the COVID-19 illness, testing for the virus and people following guidance to stay home if sick, according to Delmarva Poultry.

The association said one company has become the first on the peninsula to turn to “depopulation" amid the health crisis. It’s taking the measure as a last resort after exhausting other options, the group said.

"Depopulation has been done in the past on Delmarva and in the U.S. in response to cases of infectious avian disease,” said James Fisher, a spokesman for Delmarva Poultry.

Salisbury-based Perdue Farms, which like other poultry processors has installed temporary partitions at all facilities and given workers face masks, is not depopulating farms, said Diana Souder, a company spokeswoman.

Company leaders, she added, “do not have any current plans to do so.”

Other companies either did not respond or did not answer questions about depopulation.

The extermination methods to be used on the 2 million chickens have been approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association for handling cases of infectious avian disease, the trade group said.

But the animal activist coalition, Save Delmarva Chickens, argues it’s inhumane to use measures designed to control avian flu on healthy birds. The group’s online petition drive now has more than 2,000 signatures.

Agustina Sosa, one of four activists in Delaware and Pennsylvania who organized the drive, said approved methods include ventilation shutdown or flooding a chicken house with water-based foam.

“We were concerned that the chickens were still being talked about as commodities,” Sosa said. “Their lives are on the line. They’re the victims. They’re not infected. They are healthy. ... It’s about profit and losing money."

The group would like to see chickens released to sanctuaries, starting with 10 birds.

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The Delmarva peninsula is home to more than 5,000 poultry houses, including more than 2,200 in Maryland, which grow broilers, roasters and Cornish hens, according 2019 figures on the meat chicken industry from Delmarva Poultry. Those chicken houses have a capacity for 145 million birds. More than 608 million birds were grown on the peninsula last year, with 4.3 billion pounds processed.

In general, the virus outbreak has not brought a lot of change to the 1,325 family farms in Delmarva that raise meat for the chicken industry, Fisher said. The number includes 614 in Maryland. Growers already followed health and safety measures, such as wearing personal protective equipment in chicken houses and requiring visitors to wear the gear.

Poultry companies in Delmarva employed nearly 20,400 people last year.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, processors have revamped plants to allow for social distancing, monitored workers’ temperatures and handed out more personal protective equipment.

Perdue, for example, has redesigned break rooms and cafeterias to allow for social distancing, in addition to installing installed dividers between workers on production lines. Tyson Foods has increased distance between workers on the production floor and installed workstation dividers, and it allows more times between shifts to reduce worker interaction.

Some processors that saw demand drop because of restaurant and hotel closures have been selling larger packages of chicken to consumers from trucks stationed at volunteer fire departments around the Eastern Shore, Fisher said.

The Delmarva Poultry trade group said the impact of COVID-19 on the chicken industry has become more apparent as the disease has spread, with reduced attendance at plants across the peninsula.

“Some of Delmarva’s processing plants are operating below their normal capacity, although other plants are operating normally,” Delmarva Poultry said in a statement. “Plant capacity can change day to day, depending on attendance, and predicting capacity is difficult.”

The trade group called depopulation a “difficult but necessary decision.” The birds are killed in chicken houses on farms instead of being taken to plants.

If no action were taken, the birds would outgrow the capacity of the chicken house to hold them, the group said. Chicken companies coordinate in-house composting of the birds. Composted material is then handled in accordance with farm nutrient management plans, which states regulate. Chicken growers will be compensated for their contracted work in raising the chickens.

Fisher said the company asking its farms to depopulate was unable to find other options, including allowing another chicken company to transport and process the chickens or taking a partially processed product to rendering facilities to use as animal feed.

The processor continues to run its lines and has not closed plants, though it has adjusted processes, hatcheries and capacity to meet market demands and reduce the oversupply of chickens to be harvested, Fisher said.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture was told about depopulation plans last week and said it is monitoring for any developments. The agency is only involved in depopulations done in response to animal health concerns, said Jason Schellhardt, a department spokesman.

“This particular case was a private decision made by an individual business,” Schellhardt said.

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