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What poultry industry, state poultry lab are doing about COVID-19
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The 39,500-square-foot Georgia Poultry Lab, which opened in January 2015 at the Gateway Industrial Centre business park off Ga. 365 in North Hall County. - photo by Scott Rogers

Georgia’s poultry industry says it’s taking “extraordinary measures” to protect employees from COVID-19 while continuing to produce over 31 million pounds of chicken and 7 million eggs daily.

“Food safety and the safety of our employees remain our top priorities,” according to a statement from Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation.

The measures include enhancing sanitation routines at processing plants, heightening employee screening for any signs of illness, requiring workers to leave work and seek medical attention as needed, and increased frequency of hand washing/sanitation for employees.

“In normal times, poultry processing facilities employ practices that are designed to reduce pathogens within production facilities for food safety purposes,” the statement says.

During the coronavirus pandemic, “poultry operations are using the expertise that they have in these sanitation and hygiene areas to expand these activities to protect employees from exposure and the spread of COVID-19.”

The federation also notes that food suppliers are on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s list of “essential critical infrastructure workers.

“We are proud of the role that the employees working in the poultry industry play … during these challenging times,” the federation said. “The poultry industry takes this responsibility seriously.

“Poultry processors and egg producers will continue to do all that they can to produce the food that is vital during this recovery period, while implementing science-based measures to protect employees working in our facilities.”

“We’re running full,”said Tom Hensley, president of Fieldale Farms poultry company. “The demand for our chicken is unbelievable. If you’ve been to the grocery store, you know what I mean.”

As for plants, “we are sanitizing everything in our break rooms and restrooms,constantly,” he said. “We’ve eliminated all touching. (Employees are) washing their hands constantly.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set up workplace guidelines during the health crisis, including setting up “alternating days or extra shifts that reduce the total number of employees in a facility at a given time, allowing them to maintain distance from one another while maintaining a full onsite work week.”

Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a “frequently asked questions” webpage that addresses food safety, among other topics.

“We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging,” the site says. “However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices when handling or preparing foods.”

The Georgia Poultry Laboratory Network, based in North Hall, also has released a statement concerning its practices.

The facility monitors and tests for diseases, such as avian influenza, and inspects hatcheries to ensure the state’s poultry flock is healthy for consumption.

“We have canceled all visitors and meetings,” executive director Louise Dufour-Zavala said. “We disinfect the laboratory spaces and common areas daily, and practice social distancing.”

Employees with any respiratory symptoms “are asked not to come to work,” she said. “Our plan also includes a rotation schedule of some of our employees.”

“If we had to send everyone home because of an exposure in the laboratory, we would do a complete disinfection and bring back the team of employees on rotation that would run only the absolutely essential tests for the poultry industry to continue its operations,” Dufour-Zavala said.

For now, the lab is open and “offering the same services as normal, albeit with slightly longer turnaround times,” she said.

Also, “we have been able to receive some specimens from other laboratories and states after some of those have had to reduce operations.”