By Mike Brown
National Chicken Council
Special to Poultry Times
WASHINGTON — If there is one positive thing to emerge from COVID-19, it is a reminder that our food system is “critical” and “essential.” The chicken industry has a long history of adapting to difficult situations and meeting changing demand, and 2020 has been no different, nor will 2021.
Our top priorities remain keeping our essential workers safe and keeping chicken stocked in the meat case. Chicken growers and processors across the country have stepped up to the plate, literally, to ensure America’s No. 1 protein keeps flowing to store shelves during the pandemic.
COVID prevention and control measures
It is imperative that a proper balance be struck between ensuring a steady supply of food while maintaining the health and welfare of the people who work tirelessly to produce and deliver that food.
In response to COVID-19, each chicken company has added many additional protective measures to help keep employees safe and healthy. Companies are following all the CDC, OSHA and local health department guidelines, and many have consulted with infectious disease physicians to develop site plans.
Chicken companies in the spring added additional prevention protocols to help keep our essential employees safe and healthy, such as: social distancing, temperature checks, installing plastic barriers between work stations where social distancing is challenging, providing masks, face shields and gloves for workers, staggering shifts, making breakrooms available outside, multiple hand sanitizing stations, extra cleaning and sanitation of the plant, educating employees in multiple languages about steps to take at home to keep healthy, encouraging sick or vulnerable employees to stay home with paid sick leave, and testing for the virus.
The most recent data demonstrates that these prevention and control measures implemented by the chicken industry in the spring have been working.
Regulatory and legislative priorities
Looking ahead to next year, NCC will be on the front lines working with our members, regulators, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, CDC, OSHA and state and local officials to ensure that our processing plants remain open to provide chicken to U.S. consumers as the COVID-19 situation evolves.
We will continue to ensure broiler companies have the appropriate protective equipment for their employees and that the industry is complying and documenting compliance with the CDC/OSHA Interim Guidance — Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers.
Once a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, it is imperative that essential workers — including those who work in the broiler industry — have priority access to a vaccine. The administration’s “COVID-19 Vaccination Program Interim Playbook for Jurisdiction Operations” placed the industry in the “tier two” category behind healthcare personnel. It will be a top priority for NCC in 2021 that the industry is granted access to a vaccine while we continue to ensure the continuity of our nation’s food supply.
Turning to Capitol Hill, NCC worked with Senate leadership and the Senate and Congressional Chicken Caucuses to advocate for liability protection for business in COVID-19 stimulus agreement negotiations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still pursuing liability protection at the next soonest opportunity, and NCC will continue to advocate for its inclusion in any next package, whether that is in the lame duck Congressional session, or in the 117th Congress next year. We support legislation which would ensure that businesses that made reasonable, good faith efforts to protect customers and employees from the spread of COVID-19 are protected from frivolous legal claims arising from events occurring at any point during this national emergency.
In an effort to assist farmers, NCC worked with the Senate and Congressional Chicken Caucuses, American Farm Bureau Federation and state poultry associations in an effort to get federal financial relief for contract broiler growers who experienced significant revenue loss because of COVID-19 supply chain disruptions. Although to date this language has not been included in any of the COVID-19 stimulus packages, several states have enacted programs to provide this relief modeled after the federal proposal.
In 2020, the NCC Welfare Committee reviewed and updated the NCC Welfare Guidelines for Broilers and the NCC Welfare Guidelines for Broiler-Breeders. Both sets of guidelines will be reviewed by an academic review panel prior to final submission to the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO) for recertification in July 2021.
NCC continues to maintain a robust digital library of content related to broiler welfare through our Chicken Check In program at: https://www.chickencheck.in/. Chicken Check In offers the public a transparent look at how modern broilers are raised and processed, through FAQs, videos, infographics, virtual reality tours and more.
Broiler production and consumption
Throughout the last year, as home kitchens took center stage, Americans have been relying on chicken as a healthy and convenient protein that can be enjoyed by everyone. During the past 9 months of COVID-19, retail chicken sales have increased $1.3 billion, up 19.5 percent from the same period last year, according to IRI and 210 Analytics.
According to a recent NCC consumer survey that includes insight into the impact of the pandemic on chicken consumption habits, half (50 percent) of Americans who eat chicken say they have eaten it more than any other protein during COVID-19. Nearly half (48 percent) of survey respondents say they increased the amount of chicken they prepared at home during the pandemic, while 39 percent said they increased the ways they prepare chicken. Twitter users would agree, as ‘chicken’ has also been the most Tweeted about food during the pandemic months.
If USDA’s outlook proves correct regarding production and exports, average per capita chicken consumption in 2020 will be over 98 pounds and almost 99 pounds in 2021, a new record.
A note of thanks
As I write this column around the Thanksgiving holiday, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to thank you — our growers, hatchery, feed mill and plant workers, veterinarians, drivers, and the entire industry — who have demonstrated extreme resilience in 2020 in the wake of unprecedented times.
The value of the work by our public health professionals, first responders, and public safety employees is unquestioned, but we must also adequately recognize the service of our food producers. In addition to providing Americans with their favorite protein, it has been inspiring to see the charitable work done by companies in their local communities all over the country.
While the efforts of our industry may not drive attention-getting headlines or make their way into sensationalized media stories, we should all be proud to know that the industry is doing everything we can to keep our workers healthy and safe, and keep America fed — in that order, one meal at a time.
Mike Brown is president of the National Chicken Council with offices in Washington, D.C.