Backyard chicken trend causes spike in infections (copy)

In this Sept. 26, 2017, photo, a rooster walks in the backyard of a home in Des Moines.

It’s not like we weren’t warned.

The doomsayers predicted a chicken wing shortage months ago. But it turned out to be so much worse. It’s not just wings, but chicken in general.

It seems the poultry paucity has arrived, heralded by a series of fast-food executives describing in earnings calls their stores’ struggles to stock enough chicken — nuggets, tenders, wings, patties, all shapes and sizes — to keep pace with legions of peckish Americans.

“Demand for the new sandwich has been so strong that, coupled with general tightening in domestic chicken supply, our main challenge has been keeping up with that demand,” said David Gibbs, CEO of Yum Brands, whose KFC restaurants recently rolled out a new fried-chicken sandwich.

Charles Morrison, chairman and CEO of Wingstop, said this week that, “Suppliers are struggling, just as many in our industry are, to hire people to process chicken, thus placing unexpected pressure on the amount of birds that can be processed and negatively affecting supply of all parts of the chicken in the U.S., not just wings.”

Chicken has for years been the most popular meat in the United States, and experts and analysts have cited several reasons for the current deficit. Some are related to the coronavirus — pandemic-spurred disruptions in the market and supply chain and an increased demand for a comfort food that is takeout — or delivery-friendly. Others, industry watchers say, include increased competition, volatile feed prices and even the deadly winter storms that swept over the South in February, halting the work of chicken processors.

And then there’s the proliferation of the fried chicken sandwich. The Washington Post dubbed 2019 the Year of the Chicken Sandwich — and for good reason. Popeyes kicked things off that August, releasing a new chicken sandwich that quickly took over the internet. Then it hit the streets, with eager customers queuing up for blocks to buy a sandwich. Just over two weeks after the new menu item dropped, Popeyes announced it had sold out.

Even now, the craze persists, with Popeyes continuing to duke it out with Chick-fil-A for sandwich supremacy and KFC and McDonald’s entering the fray with new offerings.

On an earnings call this week, McDonald’s USA President Joe Erlinger didn’t mention shortages but said sandwich sales are “exceeding our projections” and announced the chain was at “the beginning of our multiyear chicken journey.”

But the poultry industry’s problems run much deeper than a shortage of the finished product. If 2019 was the year of the chicken sandwich, 2020 was the year that big meat’s labor issues became the subject of national headlines.

Investigative reporting and lawsuits have revealed life-threatening conditions that workers in meat and poultry plants have endured during the pandemic, and they’ve prompted criticism that the industry is more concerned with profit than with safety. The industry, meanwhile, has argued that it has invested in protections and that facility operations were essential.

Many plants became virus hot spots. Nearly 60,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 291 have died, according to data compiled by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, and the vast majority of those infected have been racial or ethnic minorities.

During the pandemic, the meat industry wielded its political power at both the state and federal levels. Reporting by the nonprofit journalism outlet ProPublica found that companies lobbied local officials to keep their plants open while failing to implement social distancing and masking policies.

The Trump administration also allowed 15 poultry plants to increase slaughter line speeds, which both boosts production and makes it more difficult for workers to maintain space between one another. It also appears to have accelerated coronavirus spread, according to a Post analysis.

And at a Tyson Foods plant in Iowa, supervisors placed “winner-take-all” bets on how many of their workers would catch the virus, according to a wrongful-death suit.

Yet, chicken remains as popular as ever. A study from TOP, a network of marketing agencies, says fried chicken chains have fared far better than other fast-food outlets during the pandemic. Both demand and price remain high, and restaurants across the country have had to adapt, some by cutting chicken wings from their menus.

One industry official in North Carolina predicted the crunch would get more acute as the weather warms and more Americans begin grilling regularly.

“What we need,” the official told WSOC-TV, “is a four-winged chicken.”

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