GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Georgia poultry processors are still producing as much chicken as ever, according to the head of the state’s poultry federation.
Yet the meatpacking industry is changing – as meat processors around the country have shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
"All plants in Georgia are producing are operating and our production levels are comparable to pre COVID-19 levels," said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.
But meat processing has slowed elsewhere. COVID-19 outbreaks have shut down beef and pork plants in eight states – cutting the pork production rate nationwide by 25 percent.
In Georgia, COVID-19 has killed four workers at a chicken processing plant in Camilla, including 55-year-old Annie Grant.
"She said baby, they’re telling us if we don’t come, we don’t get paid or we risk getting fired," Willie Martin, her son, told NBC News. Martin buried his mother last weekend.
But that is starting to change, according to chicken plant union rep Edgar Fields.
"In the union facilities, we’ve negotiated some benefits where employees do get paid in the event that they do not go in," Fields said.
State officials said Monday that mobile testing facilities have been moved closer to poultry plants in north Georgia. A temporary facility was set up outside Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville for COVID-19 cases.
State data shows Hall County, surrounding Gainesville, has a higher per-capita rate of COVID-19 cases than most metro Atlanta counties.
Gainesville calls itself the 'poultry capital of the world.'
In recent weeks, Georgia’s chicken processing plants have installed barriers between work stations – and have started temperature screenings at every shift for every employee, according to the poultry federation.
The question is whether that can keep down COVID-19 outbreaks in chicken plants – and keep the plants running.
"I’m still at this time very cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to keep these plants open, keep people employed and keep our great chicken products for our consumers," said Gary Black, Georgia's agriculture commissioner.
That would give shoppers one less reason to panic at grocery stores.
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