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Some Northeastern poultry flocks are being depopulated in response to drastically reduced demand from the foodservice industry.

Michael Foods, a foodservice and ingredient supplier that is one of the nation’s largest buyers of eggs, appears to have suddenly cut purchases for its large processing plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

With restaurants, cruise ships, bakeries and other buyers of bulk eggs closed for the COVID-19 pandemic, demand had apparently dried up.

It was an unavoidable consequence of the pandemic, said Gregory Martin, a Penn State Extension poultry educator.

Some chicken flocks, both layers and broilers, will be depopulated in response, Martin said.

That’s a bigger problem for egg producers than for broiler growers because layers take longer to reach productive age and stick around longer. Broilers typically go to market at 6 weeks old.

Martin said he didn’t know of any other large processors besides Michael Foods that had shut down because of the pandemic.

Martin hoped that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order will be gradually lifted as planned beginning May 8.

Poultry is the main source of income for many of Pennsylvania’s family farmers, Martin said, and a prolonged market disruption could challenge them financially.

Michael Foods did not respond to a request for comment about its egg purchases.

But Rheems, Pennsylvania-based Wenger Feeds, one of the company’s suppliers, provided a statement, quoted here at length:

“As you know, many protein producers have closed plants due to illness or lack of staff as well as a shortage of packaging materials. Some plants are running at lower operating levels due to the need for social distancing of the workforce.

“Agriculture is suffering like every other industry, and we’ve had to make hard choices like everyone else. These choices are being prompted by the inability to distribute egg production to foodservice processors, whose plants are either not operating or operating at low levels as mentioned previously, or the inability to sell these shell eggs in the open market, where they could be purchased, processed, packaged, and sold in the retail markets (i.e. grocery stores).

“We have contacted some of our producers about depopulating their flocks due to a lack of a market for their protein. Some younger flocks are being molted. We looked carefully at all of our flocks and chose ones to depopulate that were closer to the end of their lifecycle. The protein products from the depopulated flocks were going into the food service market as egg products, which is an estimated 30% of all eggs produced in the country and likely a higher percentage in our region.

“The products destined for food service can’t easily be repackaged for grocery stores. The packaging plants are running at capacity and can’t get egg cartons to pack them. Freezers are also full. Consequently, there was no choice but to dispose of the final protein products much like you see producers dumping milk. Everyone is in a similar situation, unfortunately.

“We have been advocating with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture on behalf of our egg producers, and we are working with them to do everything possible to find support for them in governmental programs or other options for their production. We are also evaluating how we, as a Company, might be able to support these producers since they are important strategic partners. As you know, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) was announced late last week, and we will evaluate whether that will provide yet another option to depopulation. It is very unclear at this point.

“We understand this is more than a job. Our producers have devoted a great deal of attention and care to their flock. It was not a decision we made lightly.”

A letter has also been circulated online indicating that poultry integrator Allen Harim would begin depopulating flocks this month because of declining attendance at its processing plant.

The company has not responded to a request for comment.

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