Meat plants questioned on record pork shipments to China despite warnings of shortage due to coronavirus

Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker are initiating an investigation into three meat plants after the companies pushed to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic – citing a meat shortage that triggered raised prices – despite a record-high number of pork shipments to China.

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The senators raised questions about the steps that Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and Smithfield Foods took to protect their workers during the coronavirus pandemic, especially considering data that showed meat plant workers falling ill due to the virus contracted inside the plants.

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“Your companies created the conditions that left your workers and the supply chain vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic – but instead of addressing them, you used the prospect of food shortages to secure a federal license to put your workers in harm’s way,” Warren and Booker wrote in letters addressed to the companies on Tuesday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in May that there were 4,913 cases of COVID-19 in meat plant workers and at least 20 deaths due to lack of social distancing measures and poor hygiene at the plants, as well as crowded living and transportation conditions.

Despite meat plants claiming shortages, and stores placing limits on how much meat consumers could purchase at grocery stores as well as jacking up the prices, President Trump insisted he would not slow exports of meat to China.

Trump's decision stuck close to a deal made with Beijing earlier this year in which China promised to purchase $12.5 billion in agricultural goods from the U.S. in 2020 and another $19.5 billion in 2021.

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“In April, while thousands of your workers were falling ill due to your own inability or unwillingness to implement worker protections, your companies warned that the ‘country [was] perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply’  and that ‘the food supply chain is breaking,’ while publicly pressing federal, state and local officials to keep plants open,” the letter to the meat companies said.

“Your warnings of potential shortages prompted retailers to place limits on the amount of meat that customers could purchase.”

Meanwhile, through February, pork and pork variety meat exports accounted for 31 percent of all U.S. production, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Just over one-third of those exports went to China, CNBC reported. Through April of 2020, the U.S. was on pace to export 1.1 million metric tons of pork meat, up 35 percent from last year.

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Despite the uptick in pork exports, China announced on Sunday that it would ban imports from a Tyson poultry plant in Arkansas because of a coronavirus outbreak at the facility that infected 227 workers earlier this month.