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Chickens walk under water pipes equipped with drip nipples at Perdue Farms in Princess Anne, Md., in 1997. (Scott Applewhite/AP)

A large chicken processing company was forced to kill 2 million of its chickens earlier this month because of coronavirus-related workforce shortages, according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry.

The Georgetown, Del., trade organization said the company, which it did not name, took the step as a last resort because of reduced employee attendance amid caution over the virus.

The chicken depopulation took place “on several farms in both Delaware and Maryland using approved, humane methods,” the poultry group said in a statement.

The methods were the same as those “approved for depopulation in cases of infectious avian disease . . . [and] are accepted by the American Veterinary Medical Association,” the statement said.

“With reduced staffing, many plants are not able to harvest chickens at the pace they planned . . . before any COVID-19 quarantine and social distancing measures took effect,” the statement said.

“This leads to more birds waiting on chicken farms to be harvested than plants have capacity to harvest and process,” the statement said. “If no action were taken, the birds would outgrow the capacity of the chicken house to hold them.”

Reduced employee attendance has hit “every chicken company processing plant on Delmarva,” the statement said.

The Baltimore Sun, which first reported the event, identified the company as Allen Harim Foods, a South Korean-owned firm in Seaford, Del. The company could not be reached for comment.

Known coronavirus cases in the District, Maryland and Virginia

The trade organization has 1,800 members in Delaware and on the Maryland and Virginia Eastern Shore. In 2019, the Delmarva chicken industry produced 609 million chickens and $3.5 billion in value.

The loss of 2 million chickens represents about 0.3 percent of Delmarva chickens produced last year, said James Fisher, a spokesman for the trade organization. “So any effect on chicken availability is very, very small,” he said in an email.

But the action comes as farmers across the country are forced to dump huge quantities of milk and vegetables because of virus concerns and lack of customers, while many Americans wait in line for food handouts.