If you’ve noticed it’s been increasingly harder to find boneless chicken breasts in the grocery store, while bone-in thighs and drumsticks seem to be in abundance, you’re not wrong.
North America’s most popular cut of chicken is the latest casualty during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has affected many US and Canadian meat processing plants, slowing production capacity, and forcing factories to change in order to speed things along.
Boneless Chicken Breasts are out, Bone-in are In
Meat processing plants across the US and Canada have become coronavirus hot-spots, with infections among factory workers on the rise. Hundreds, and in some cases thousands of workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Especially in places such as Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, the spread of the virus through the workers has not stopped at the plant doors, instead of traveling home, to the grocery stores, and into the community with the infected employees. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
In Sussex County Delaware, who’s plants supply the majority of chicken that supplies most of the mid-Atlantic region, the situation has been grim. According to Dr. Rick Pescatore, chief physician of the Delaware Division of Public Health and an organizer of the state’s coronavirus response effort, it’s these communities that are being hit hardest because of the number of people who work in these factories. (1)
“It would be a mistake to think that the transmission happens in the plant alone,” He says. “We’ve identified a high-level infectivity in the plant that matches the high rate in the community.” (1)
Factories have had to ramp up protection measures. Plexiglass separators, protective equipment, and more space are being established between each worker, and employees are being encouraged to stay home if they feel unwell. Daily testing has become the norm for workers at the beginning of their shift as well. If you test positive, you are sent home. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
All of this has led to a decreased labor force at meat processing plants and therefore a lowered rate of production. To compensate, plants have lessened or stopped the production of boneless cuts altogether. Without the bone-removing step, they are able to process meat faster. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
An attempt to help the farmers
Just as dairy farmers and vegetable farmers have been having to destroy products due to lack of demand, farmers in the meat-raising industry are also being forced to euthanize animals because the processing plants are either closed completely or maxed-out at their already reduced capacity. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Dr. Scott Brown of the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources says this is because once the birds grow past a certain size, they are too large to fit in the standardized equipment and can’t be processed. Allen Harim Foods in Delaware had to destroy about 2 million chickens because the plants couldn’t keep up. (1)
“Animals are backing up on the farms,” Dr. Brown says. “We’re euthanizing chickens, we’re euthanizing hogs. None of that is what farmers in this country want to be doing.” (1)
Testing Ramps Up
Public health units in farming and processing plant communities are ramping up testing and precautionary measures, especially as these communities prepare to welcome in a wave of migrant workers to work on the farms. These workers live in large group homes and camps, which are potential hotbeds for the virus to spread easily from worker to worker just like in the processing plants. This may also lead to a decreased production capacity along with further coronavirus outbreaks in the communities. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
What to Expect on Grocery Store Shelves
Grocery stores are receiving more cuts of meat that require further cutting by their in-house butchers, again decreasing the number of steps needed at the processing plants themselves. In the store, you will see (1, 2, 3, 4, 5):
- More sirloin and striploin cuts
- Larger packages of meat as opposed to small or individually packaged meats
- Bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks
- “End cuts”: for example, round steaks
- Limited quantity and restrictions on how much you can buy at one time.
Essentially, the meat counter is going to look a bit different for a while. As public health and factories work together to slow the spread of coronavirus, production is going to be lower.
Thankfully, there is plenty of information and recipes out there to help you prep, cook, and store these different cuts of meat so that you can still eat healthy and delicious meals, even if your favorite boneless chicken breasts are not available.
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