Butcher Ryan Goodrich looks at a Maine inspector's mark on a side of Pork at Farmers' Gate Market in Wales.

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In the age of COVID-19, it’s slim pickings in the meat section of the grocery store. That’s not just because people are panic buying chicken breast and hot dogs. Slaughterhouses around the country, from Pennsylvania to South Dakota, have been shutting down as workers fall ill.

In Maine, though, the slaughterhouse scene is surviving because of the size of slaughterhouse operations and the precautions owners have taken early on in the process to prevent the spread of disease.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

On April 18, the New York Times reported that, when it comes to our national food system, large slaughterhouses are perhaps suffering most in the age of the coronavirus. These processing plants, some of which provide a significant percentage of the national meat supply and employ thousands of workers, have become hot spots for the disease. On April 15, Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota, which produces between four and five percent of the nation’s pork, was the country’s biggest coronavirus hot spot.

“People don’t realize how delicate that stuff can be sometimes until something like this happens,” said Todd Pierce, owner of West Gardiner Beef, a slaughterhouse in the Kennebec County town.

Maine’s slaughterhouses have so far been able to avoid outbreaks and closures, in part due to the scale of the slaughterhouses in the state. Even Maine’s six state-inspected and six U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected slaughterhouses are mostly small operations, many with less than 10 employees.

“It’s a lot of small family-run businesses,” said Leia Farnham, who works at Nest & Mullen Slaughterhouse in Kennebunk. “I saw the news about slaughterhouses and it shows [workers] right next to each other in an assembly line. There’s a few larger plants in Maine, but they’re nothing like what they were showing on the news.”

West Gardiner Beef, for example, has “seven employees, not seven thousand,” according to Pierce. The butchershop conducts mostly custom slaughter for farmers looking to process animals for family consumption as well as some state-inspected work for farmers looking to sell at farmers markets.

“Our state inspector, he’s really the only outsider within our operation,” Pierce said. “We have a very small crew — a lot of it is family — [and] we stay close to home. We’re just being very careful.”

Andy Bisson, co-owner of L&P Bisson and Sons in Topsham, said that, even aside from family members, many of his employees live on or near the farm.

“Nobody really goes anywhere,” Bisson said. “It’s mostly employees that live right there on the farm. You walk out the door, you’re at work.”

Changing operations at Maine’s slaughterhouses

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Many of Maine’s slaughterhouses have taken additional measures to reduce contact with customers — whether they are farmers processing meat for the farmers market, or consumers buying meat for themselves — and protect their staff, like switching to curbside pick-up only, requiring additional protective gear like masks and unloading livestock for custom slaughter themselves so customers do not have to leave their vehicles.

“We’re not letting any customers into the building at all,” Pierce said. “People are dropping stuff off. Anybody that’s picking up, we wait on them outside, bringing the product out to them.”

When it comes to processing meat, Maine’s slaughterhouses are taking additional measures to social distance whenever possible.

“We only have three people in the cutting room,” Pierce said. “There are times when they are closer than six feet, no doubt, but we’re keeping a close eye on that.”

The thing that benefits Maine’s operations could also be their downfall: if employees in Maine’s small slaughterhouse operations were to get sick, which still could happen, the results could be devastating because of the specialized skills that it requires.

“I think if any of us got sick we wouldn’t be able to run,” Farnham said.

Meat business is booming

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Even though the pandemic has put some extra restrictions on day-to-day operations, meat processors throughout the state say that their sales are up, especially with grocery stores running so low on meat products.

“The demand for meat has been very high,” Pierce said. “It’s our time to shine a little bit maybe. There’s been a huge uptick in interest in local meat.”

The uptick in business is especially unusual given the time of year. Farnham said that business in the spring is normally slow.

“It’s kind of the time when we get to go through and repair things and clean up and things like that,” she said. “I think [our customers] have a fear about us being shut down or everything being shut down because of the virus and they won’t be able to get food.”

Bisson said that L&P Bisson and Sons has had to hire more workers in order to meet the new logistical demands of the coronavirus.

“Business has probably doubled or even tripled what it was,” Bisson said. “The problem is right now everything is curbside everything is twice as much work. We had to hire on more girls [for curbside pick up] and we’re looking for a couple more meat cutters.”

Still, Maine’s slaughterhouses want farmers and consumers to know that they can continue to find functional slaughterhouses — and delicious meat — if they look locally.

“I think that’s always a better option,” Farnham laughed. “I would imagine in the long run you’re saving money and it could be a little bit better for you to buy local and support local businesses.”

Bisson said that he and other processors hope that the attitude will continue beyond the pandemic.

“When this is all over I hope they keep remembering us,” Bisson said. “Everyone was kind of struggling. Now all this came about with the shortages at the big supermarkets, everyone’s going to the local people now.”

Nichole Sargent, owner at Windham Butcher Shop in Windham, agrees.

“It made people look in their own backyards and realize how amazing Maine is and how many resources we have,” she said. “I see this as an awakening that people will continue to buy locally.”

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