2 million chickens will be euthanized at a single plant as the coronavirus puts the US on the brink of a meat shortage

·3 min read
Grocery store empty shelves Michigan coronavirus
Penny Veils of Wisconsin who is in Michigan taking care of her parents tries to find chicken or hamburger on empty shelves at a Kroger grocery store on March 13, 2020 in Grosse Ile, Michigan.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

  • Worker shortages caused by the coronavirus have forced one poultry plant to make the decision to kill 2 million chickens.

  • It's a small percentage of the total birds processed by the plant each year, but highlights a massive problem facing the food supply chain in the US.

  • Produce is being left to rot and milk is being poured down the drain as closed restaurants, hotels, and schools upend the usual demand for food.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

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A poultry processing plant in Delaware has made the "difficult but necessary" decision to kill two million chickens as worker shortages push the US meat supply chain towards a breaking point.

Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a cooperative that works with some 1,300 farmers, said it looked at all other options, "including allowing another chicken company to transport and process the chickens and taking a partially processed product to rendering facilities to utilize for other animal feed," but ultimately decided on euthanization.

"If no action were taken, the birds would outgrow the capacity of the chicken house to hold them," the company said, noting that the birds will be killed "using approved, humane methods" and farmers will still be compensated.

It's a small percentage of the 609 million chickens that Delmarva's farmers raised in 2019, but the interruption highlights a problem facing meat producers across the United States: meat slaughtering operations can only be so automated.

Tyson, one of the world's largest meat producers, said in a full-page advertisement in national newspapers on Sunday that "the food supply chain is breaking" as workers get sick and plants are forced to close.

"There will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed," Tyson said in the ad.

Three major pork plants in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa — which collectively represent 15% of pork production, according to CNN — were forced to close indefinitely in April.

"During this pandemic, our entire industry is faced with an impossible choice: continue to operate to sustain our nation's food supply or shutter in an attempt to entirely insulate our employees from risk," Smithfield said in a statement to Bloomberg News on Friday. "It's an awful choice; it's not one we wish on anyone."

According to data from the US Department of Agriculture, the amount of frozen pork in storage dropped 4% from March to April. Slaughterhouses, meanwhile, processed 25% less meat while 400,000 animals wait in a backlog as plants work at lowered capacities.

Worker shortages are only the tip of the iceberg.

Other agricultural products — from milk, to beer, and vegetables — are going to waste as restaurants, hotels, schools, and theme parks go dark.

"People don't make onion rings at home," an onion farmer in Idaho who mainly supplies restaurants told The New York Times.

Some farms have sent unsold crops to food banks — where Americans are flocking in droves as record jobless claims pile up — but for many, the donations aren't possible without financial assistance for harvesting and transporting.

"As we hit into the peak berry production in May, that could be berries that would not get picked and never make it to the market," Soren Bjorn, president of the berry producer Driscoll's, told Business Insider. "We think that by far, the best thing that could happen is that that product makes its way to the food banks. And that will require some financial assistance from the government."

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