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By Greg Barnes

Maggie Hooks waited in a long line of vehicles that snaked from behind the Salemburg Fire Department to Main Street and far beyond.

Hooks and hundreds of others — perhaps more people than this small Sampson County town has residents — were there to get chicken that the House of Raeford was selling for less than a buck a pound out of the back of a refrigerated tractor-trailer.

The North Carolina-based poultry company has been doing these sales for some time now, taking its show on the road to Kinston, Rocky Mount, Pink Hill, Wilmington, Clinton, New Bern, Riegelwood. Even as far away as Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina.

Another poultry processor has been doing the same. Mountaire Farms has held sales at its plant in Siler City, in Raeford, at the Farmers Market in Raleigh and elsewhere, causing traffic jams wherever it sets up shop. At a recent sale at its Siler City location, Mountaire sold out of 80,000 pounds of poultry in two hours.

Corporate citizens

Mountaire and the House of Raeford say they are conducting these sales primarily as a way to be good corporate citizens.

“As you know, grocery stores had a difficult time keeping up with demand once restaurants closed, and so we felt it was important to be a good community partner and see what we could do to make a difference,” Mountaire spokeswoman Catherine Bassett wrote in an email to NC Health News.

Hooks and others waiting in line in Salemburg agreed. Chicken is hard to come by in the grocery stores, and the prices are great.

But there may be something else going on here. The state’s order to close schools, restaurants and bars has diminished the demand for bulk sales of poultry.

While retail sales of chicken at grocery stores has increased, the processing plants have had to adjust their packaging. The companies sell poultry in bulk to restaurants and bars, while store-bought chicken is typically individually packaged.

Panic buying and other pressures

Converting processing plant operations from bulk to individual sales can be a time-consuming process, which is probably partly to blame for the absence of poultry and other meats in the grocery stores, said Rob Handfield, a distinguished professor of operations and supply chain management at N.C. State University.

Another N.C. State professor, Todd See, speculated that panic buying, at least in the early stages of the pandemic, also has led to the shortage of poultry on store shelves.

“People are stocking their freezers with more than they normally would,” said Dave Witter, a spokesman for the House of Raeford. “People are buying way more than they probably will ever need. They’re putting it in freezers. So that’s one of the reasons that stores can’t keep stock fast enough.”

Add to those problems a shortage of labor at some processing plants that had existed even before the pandemic. These days, as an increasing number of processing plants have reported outbreaks of the virus, plant employees have become reluctant to return to work.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has reported outbreaks at seven meat processing plants in the state. As of Thursday, 190 cases of COVID-19 had been reported at those plants, a DHHS spokeswoman said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence to suggest that the coronavirus can be spread through food.

Lack of freezer space

Handfield and See said Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order, changes in meat packaging and a labor shortage could all be contributing to a backlog of chickens at the state’s poultry farms. It takes only about two months from the time a chick hatches until it is ready for market, they said. The chickens have to go somewhere.

Witter, the House of Raeford spokesman, said his company does mostly bulk sales of fresh poultry. He acknowledged that one reason for selling chicken directly to the public is a lack of freezer space.

“A lot of the freezer facilities are full right now, so we really don’t have too many places to put it,” Witter said.

But he said the House of Raeford can fairly easily regulate the number of chickens going to market to keep them from overpopulating the farms. According to published reports, at least one poultry company, Allen Harim Foods of Delaware, has had to kill up to 2 million chickens before they could be sold to consumers because of staffing shortages caused by the coronavirus.

Witter said the House of Raeford has not experienced much of a staffing shortage. Even it had,  he said, the company would simply reduce the number of eggs at the hatcheries.

“If you don’t have the eggs then the chicken is not going to be there,” Witter said. “So that’s what we would do. We would certainly not be depopulating a farm. We’re not going to do anything like that. Oh, my goodness, I can’t imagine doing that.”

Witter said the main reason for selling chicken out of the back of a truck is to help its employees, its farmers and the countless number of people who are laid off or are struggling in other ways to put food on their tables during these trying times.

State agricultural officials say the chicken is safe, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is no evidence that the coronavirus has affected poultry, pork or beef.

Hooks and other people who waited in the long line at the Salemburg Fire Department seemed to appreciate the House of Raeford’s back-of-a-truck chicken sale. They definitely appreciated the low prices.

“We need some chicken. We low, low, low and it’s so good,” Hooks said.

Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com