Delmarva poultry industry sees spike in sales amid pandemic

Delaware State News/Marc Clery
Georgie Cartanza stands in front of her chicken houses near Dover.

GEORGETOWN — During the infancy of COVID-19’s spread last month, area companies satisfied the public’s surge to buy chicken. That’s according to Holly Porter, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.

“In the first couple of weeks the demand for chicken swelled, especially for grocery stores,” she said. “The chicken processing companies stepped up to that need, including redirecting marketing, sales and processing of products that may have generally gone to restaurants. “Several processing plants were even running six days as week.”

There were 609 million chickens raised in the Delmarva region in 2019, with a wholesale value of $3.5 billion, according to DPI. “Demand in the restaurant business is down. Demand in grocery stores remains high,” Ms. Porter said.

Delaware Department of Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse said the rush to buy poultry came because “So many consumers are not going out to eat, they’re preparing meals at home. “You get a lot for your money with poultry, it’s a great protein food source dollar for dollar.”
Chicken companies have more than 20,000 area employees, along with separate workers in associated businesses such as electrical, construction, equipment, lending, insurance, etc., Ms. Porter said.
On consecutive weekends, Mountaire Farms held truckload sales at Hocker’s Super Center grocery store in Ocean View. Other options throughout Delaware are under consideration.

“We don’t normally sell directly to consumers, but we’re doing what we can to make sure people have food to feed their families,” spokeswoman Catherine Bassett said.

Mountaire — which operates in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Arkansas with nearly 10,000 employees — is “seeing some areas are still struggling to keep chicken in the stores, while others have returned to normal,” Ms. Bassett said.
Mountaire remains in regular production mode with discounted prices “because were are trying to help out our neighbors,” Ms. Bassett said.
Ms. Bassett said the company partnered with food banks, local churches and community groups to make chicken available, along with the Indian River School District and local Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs.

“Last week, we partnered with two area hospital to donate a 10 pound bag of chicken to every employee as a way to thank all of the dedicated medical professionals who are on the front lines of fighting this virus,” she said.
“We have even more planned this week and in the weeks to come. We are a part of this community and it’s great to see everyone come together in times of crisis to help everyone.”

Increasing safety
In March, Mountaire announced an employee at its Selbyville plant tested positive for coronavirus, and two at Perdue Farms in Milford plant were diagnosed. Both companies reported ramping up safety operations in the aftermath.
Generally speaking, Ms. Porter said, “The safety and health of the employees is of the utmost priority for processing companies, so taking additional measures beyond what is normal food processing procedures, were enacted.

“These may include health questionnaires, taking temperatures of employees before entering work, additional cleaning and sanitizing of staff areas, other than the processing lines, etc.”
Early in the pandemic, Mountaire created a task force to address growing challenges. Among the responses so far are:
•Added hand sanitation throughout facilities, plexiglass dividers in lunch rooms and temperature checks.
•COVID-19 symptom and response medical professionals are at every plant.
•Created a sick pay program encourage to hourly staff stay home if sick.
Mr. Scuse said state officials communicate with Perdue, Mountaire and Allen Harim Foods on a regular basis.

“The companies have been very good in reacting to the protections need to maintain a healthy atmosphere for their workforce,” he said.
Keeping chicken coming for consumers requires a series of moving parts before reaching processing plants.
“Food supply is extremely important and getting the chicken to the grocery stores is almost the last link in that chain — there are a lot of other pieces that are involved, including the grain farmers being able to prepare and plant their spring crops that are going one right now,” Ms. Porter said.
There’s a lot on the line for 1,325 growers operating in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia’s Eastern Shore as well.

The process begins with growers such as Georgie Cartanza at Freedom Farm in Dover. She recently moved four chicken houses that hold around 148,000 chicks to plants.
It takes seven to nine weeks to raise a flock and growers get paid every two to three months. Ms. Cartanza said the industry is solid for now.
“We’re trying to be proactive, however, if equipment breaks down because you just don’t know if parts and repair service will continue to be available if the conditions change drastically,” she said.

Chicken growers have been utilizing social distance for years, Ms. Porter said.
“We just call it biosecurity,” she said. “So growers know who is coming onto their farms, limiting visitors, not interacting with supply vendors, such as propane delivery, etc.”