The Journal Gazette
Thursday, May 07, 2020 1:00 am

Meat supply pinch makes way into region

Workers getting sick, laid off

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

COVID-19 is affecting the food supply chain, including a Garrett-based nonprofit that partners with processors to provide meat for food banks.

Hoosiers Feeding the Hungry is experiencing an influx of pigs sent to it from farmers because meat plants such as Tyson in Logansport are shuttered or have slowed production because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last week, we had 28,000 pigs donated,” said Deb Treesh, executive director of Hoosiers Feeding the Hungry. “If we don't (process them), these animals are going to go in the dumps.”

But the organization needs help.

Hoosiers Feeding the Hungry, which also processes other animals, expects at least an additional 500 pigs per week moving forward.

The cost to process a pig is about $200, according to a news release from the nonprofit.

“That is $100,000 per week that we will need ASAP,” the release says.

Donors can give money at or by mailing a check or money order to the organization.

Tyson closed its Logansport pork plant 14 days after employees tested positive for COVID-19. Company officials have said they will resume limited production this week, according to Brownfield Ag News, a news outlet in Missouri that covers farming and agriculture.

Other producers also have been affected.

Miller Poultry in Orland said Wednesday that 136 of its almost 800 workers – about 17% – tested positive for COVID-19 during testing last week.

Most positive tests came from employees who did not have symptoms and still show no symptoms, the company said in a message to employees provided to The Journal Gazette.

“These numbers are very low compared to what other meat and poultry plants are seeing across the country,” the message says. “This shows that the many preventative measures that were put in place weeks ago along with the additional (personal protective equipment) are working!”

Production ran at 70% of normal capacity Tuesday, the company announced, and will remain there through Saturday.

Miller Poultry employs workers from Allen, DeKalb, Elkhart, LaGrange and Steuben counties and Branch and St. Joseph counties in Michigan.

In a letter to governors this week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said meat and poultry processors are “critical industries” that need to stay open. 

“It is essential that we work together to ensure the health and safety of those who help keep food on the table during this unprecedented time,” he wrote. 

Area producers agree, but the leaders of companies that produce, process and sell meat say efforts to protect workers and customers have led to big changes in how they do business. 

At Maple Leaf Farms in Leesburg, workers at the duck producer are regularly screened and their temperatures taken, Communications Manager Janelle Deatsman said. Hand sanitizer is stocked throughout the facility, and employees are required to wear face coverings, she said. 

“We've been doing a lot on the employee safety front,” Deatsman said. 

About half of the company's business involves providing meat to food service businesses such as restaurants and caterers, she said, and orders have “slowed considerably.” None of Maple Leaf Farms' roughly 1,000 workers have been laid off, Deatsman said. 

That's not the case at Joseph Decuis, an upscale restaurant in Roanoke that serves Wagyu beef from cattle raised there. The restaurant is closed, and chef Marcus Daniel said some employees – he wasn't sure how many – were let go, but likely will be rehired at some point. 

The Emporium – the retail arm of the business – is open, and meat and other foods are sold there. 

Daniel said meat production hasn't been affected, noting 3,000 pounds of ground beef was sold last month. 

He said it's not clear when the restaurant will reopen, though Gov. Eric Holcomb's reopening plan allows eateries to open Monday at 50% capacity. The safety of workers and customers will carefully be considered, Daniel said. 

“Our employees and guests are No. 1,” he said.

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