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Alabama’s Poultry Processing Persists Amid Virus Crisis

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

By Caleb Hicks

In the midst of a national health and economic crisis, Alabama’s largest agricultural industry remains at work providing food for Americans.

The Alabama Poultry & Egg Association, or AP&EA, along with industry partners, farmers, processors and related industries are considered essential in agricultural food production.

AP&EA’s Johnny Adams said the organization continues to work closely with state and local government officials to keep Alabama’s poultry industry open for business.

The poultry industry has been declared essential, critical infrastructure by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as well as Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey,” said Adams, the organization’s CEO. “We take that responsibility seriously. Our affiliated farmers and poultry companies are working hard to keep employees safe as they continue to provide the nutritious, delicious food American consumers are accustomed to.”

As an essential part of America’s food supply, the poultry industry has implemented strict health measures to ensure the safety of employees.

David Thompson of Pilgrim’s said his company and others have enacted multiple health protocols for employee safety as it continues to produce safe protein.

“We have enhanced safety measures, health protocols and worker benefits to keep our workplaces, team members and products safe,” said Thompson, head of operations for Pilgrim’s Fresh Foodservice. “We are communicating directly with our team members and following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, medical professionals and local health departments every step of the way.”

Thompson acknowledged Pilgrim’s employees’ loyalty during such uncertain times.

“Every day, thousands of committed team members show up to Pilgrim’s production facilities in Alabama and across the country to help our communities and our country face this crisis,” he said. “The Pilgrim’s team is dedicated to keep food on local grocery store shelves at a time when many Americans are furloughed, unemployed or sheltering in place, and that’s something we greatly appreciate.”

Other poultry processors have added similar safety protocols. Matthew Herman, senior vice president of Fresh Operations for Koch Foods, said implementing technology such as walk-through temperature evaluations and screen guards between line employees and public spaces are vital and are likely to become industry standards.

“Temperature screening of employees has become important in recent months,” Herman said. “I don’t think that’s going away, and it’ll be here to stay. We have to continue to find better ways to identify if someone has an elevated body temperature, and that’s something we can utilize year-round.”

Poultry companies have implemented various methods to keep employees safe and socially distant during the pandemic. Some of these methods include dividers between employees in the processing line and in break areas.

As poultry processors aim to keep employees safe, Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Rick Pate stressed that farmers and poultry companies are striving to provide safe food for American families.

“As we face the challenges associated with the coronavirus outbreak, farmers and processors serve as unsung heroes, working behind the scenes daily to put food on our tables,” Pate said. “Farmers carefully follow biosecurity measures on the farm, while processors and distributors follow strict food safety standards to keep the food supply chain operational.”

Pate also reassured the supply of poultry is plentiful and reiterated its vital role in the state’s economy.

“The public can be assured we have a safe, sustainable and abundant food supply, and that will continue even during this crisis,” he said. “Poultry is Alabama’s number one agricultural industry. It is essential to our economy, and it’s important citizens know agriculture continues to operate unimpeded.”

Half of all poultry in the U.S. is processed for the food service industry, according to the National Chicken Council. That market dropped drastically as restaurants, hotels and schools closed.

Decreased demand for poultry by restaurants has caused production adjustments at plants such as Koch Foods, which primarily processes poultry for foodservices, but Herman is confident production will be back at target when demand returns.

“I strongly feel things will even out, because people will want to get out and eat with their friends and families once all of this is over,” Herman said. “The food service industry will need poultry for their customers, and we’ll be ready.”

The Alabama Poultry and Egg Association represents Alabama's poultry industry, which is the state's largest agricultural industry with an annual economic impact of $15 billion. Alabama's poultry industry generates more than 65 percent of agricultural commodity sales and employs more than 86,000 workers while processing over 22 million broiler chickens per week.

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