Chicken company to cull birds as processing capacity plummets

With a 50-percent workforce decline at poultry plants owned by the Delaware chicken company Allen Harim, the company told poultry farmers last week that it will begin killing chickens in the field to reduce pressure on its remaining workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

The move comes at a time when farmers in other parts of the country are letting food rot in the field because they cannot find buyers for it or cannot process it in time, even as food banks are scrambling to provide services to scores of newly unemployed Americans.

“Over the last two weeks, Allen Harim’s plant attendance has continued to decline and is now at 50 percent normal operation,” reads a letter sent from the company to its contract poultry growers on April 8. “When we started noticing the downward trend in attendance, we reduced the number of eggs set and chicks placed. Unfortunately, reduced placements will not make an impact for another six weeks, and with the continued attendance decline, and building bird inventory daily, we are forced to make a very difficult decision.”

The company will begin “depopulating” — killing — flocks of chickens to reduce the number of birds being sent to the plant, according to the letter.

Allen Harim contracts with 220 farmers, according to its website, and employs more than 1,800 people. The company did not immediately respond to an interview request.

In its letter, the company assured farmers that they would be “fairly compensated” for their birds. But there is the potential that farmers would lose money compared to what they typically make for a flock, says Craig Watts, a former contract poultry grower.

Watts says that when he grew under contract for Perdue, if depopulation occurred due to an act of God, like a pandemic, farmers were paid according to how old their chickens were when they were killed. But even if the chickens were nearly ready for slaughter, the payment could be just 50 percent of what farmers could expect to make normally.

And disposing of dead birds takes time and could also cost farmers money, says Watts.

“In my experience, when the company comes and puts a flock down, the farmer is responsible for disposing of all those chickens,” he says. On a typical four-barn chicken growing operation, a farmer could have nearly 200,000 chickens on the farm at a time. Disposing of even a percentage of that many birds would be “tremendous,” he says.

Disposing of the birds would likely involve composting them inside the chicken house, according to Watts, which could take as long as six weeks — the length of time that a chicken farmer usually takes to raise and ship an entire flock.

Watts says that the situation at Allen Harim reveals that the highly consolidated meat supply chain is vulnerable to major disruptions.

“Big is fragile. We’re seeing it now,” he says. “When you have a problem, you have a big problem.”

Chicken companies employ more than 20,000 people on the Delmarva peninsula, which encompasses part of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware, according to the area’s chicken lobby group, Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. Local news outlets reported earlier this month that the companies, including Allen Harim, were enhancing sanitation practices in response to the spread of Covid-19.

The company posted to Facebook on April 9 that it has put protections in place for workers. “These measures include face masks and temperature checks,” the post reads.

In response to supply chain disruptions caused by the spread of Covid-19, the National Chicken Council is seeking federal assistance for chicken farmers. In a letter sent April 10 to agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue and Vice President Mike Pence, the group, which represents the country’s largest chicken companies, asked for USDA to use its discretionary funds provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Response and Economic Security Act to aid chicken farmers.

“These cutbacks are not the fault of the farmers or chicken processors, but instead are merely a reflection of truly unprecedented and trying market conditions due to COVID-19,” wrote Mike Brown, NCC president, in the letter. “We expect processors to stand by our family farmers during this time and to honor their contracts, however we urge USDA to provide targeted aid to these producers through resources available to the Department.”