USPS Delays Lead to Spoiled Food in Sorting Facilities and Losses for Poultry Farmers

Any further reductions in sorting capacity has been halted... for now.

In 1918, Poultry Success Magazine printed a letter from Herbert Knapp, the president of the International Baby Chick Association, who wrote to the publication to express his gratitude for the United States Postal Service. The USPS had recently made the decision to accept baby chicks for shipment throughout the country, which the magazine said would "count for untold possibilities" for the hatchery industry, going forward.

"There is no question but that the baby chick industry would have been in deplorable condition had not the parcel post service been secured at this time," he wrote. And, for close to 100 years, that arrangement seemed to work pretty well –– for hatcheries, for backyard farmers, and for the birds themselves. In 2009, the New York Times reported that the USPS shipped 1.2 million pounds of baby chicks (as well as baby ducks and turkeys) in the first six months of the year, which adds up to millions of the one-ounce birds.

Postal workers sort, load and deliver mails as protesters hold a "Save the Post Office" demonstration outside a United States Postal Service location in Los Angeles, California, on August 22, 2020. KYLE GRILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

But this year, the USPS is facing a number of challenges, including dismantled or out-of-commission mail-sorting machines, cutbacks on overtime for employees, and other "restructuring" efforts implemented by new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Those changes have affected mail-order baby chicks in the worst possible way –– and they've also affected shipments of food and other perishables too.

Earlier this month, the owner of Pine Tree Poultry in New Sharon, Maine, opened a shipment of 800 chicks and made the grim discovery that they had all died during transport. "We’ve never had a problem like this before,” Pauline Henderson told the Portland Press Herald. "Usually they arrive every three weeks like clockwork. And out of 100 birds you may have one or two that die in shipping."

Rhiannon Hampson, who co-owns Grace Pond Farm in Thomaston, Maine, told the New York Times that the same thing happened to her chicks. "Out of 500, there were maybe 25 alive. They were staggering. It was terrible," she said. "There’s nothing sadder than seeing a box of tiny little fuzzy peeps and all of them are D.O.A.”

At least 4,800 chicks that were sent through the USPS processing center in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts earlier this month all died before arriving at their final destinations. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) has written a letter to both DeJoy and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, expressing her concern about the shipping changes, and explaining what this means for poultry farmers within the state who rely on the USPS to deliver chicks. (Maine does not have any hatcheries of its own.)

“It’s one more of the consequences of this disorganization, this sort of chaos they’ve created at the post office and nobody thought through when they were thinking of slowing down the mail,” Pingree told the Press Herald. "This is a system that’s always worked before and it’s worked very well until these changes started being made."

On the other side of the country, mail facilities have their own problems. The Los Angeles Times reports that 76 mail sorting machines have been removed from processing plants in California. Between that, and the cutbacks in overtime for USPS workers, the facilities have started to fall behind on deliveries. One mail handler said that his facility was "filled with gnats" because of all of the undelivered packages that were filled with rotting steaks, fruit, and other perishable foods.

Another reported finding boxes filled with dead baby chicks, or packages of dead crickets. Sumi Ali, who co-owns a coffee subscription company, told the Times that he was totally floored by the state of the facility when he stopped in to mail his roasted beans. "It was like Armageddon,” he said. “It was a total maze. You could not walk through the facility without having to move things out of your way. I don’t know how they got forklifts through there. There were only inches of space between containers.”

Last week, DeJoy said that he would not be ordering the removal of any more sorting machines or mail collection boxes until after November's election. But the Washington Post has also reported that DeJoy is considering "far more sweeping changes" to the USPS after the election, which could result in increased postage rates and slower delivery times, especially in rural areas.

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