Senators probe US meat packers over pandemic-era exports

U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have opened an investigation into Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and Smithfield Foods after reports that the companies exported a record amount of meat to China during the COVID-19 pandemic.

William Potter |

Warren, Booker send letter to CEOs of Tyson, JBS, Cargill, Smithfield asking for answers on worker COVID infections and exports to China

U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) have opened an investigation into Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and Smithfield Foods after reports that the companies exported a record amount of meat to China while U.S. consumers faced a meat shortage during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In a letter dated June 22 and sent to the CEOs of the four companies, the senators said the companies exported more than 1.3 billion pounds of beef and pork from March 20 through early June, even though the companies warned of a potential meat shortage as a result of the pandemic.

On April 28, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order delegating authority under the Defense Production Act (DPA) of 1950 to keep meat and poultry plants operating amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that, several poultry, pork and beef processing plants were closed temporarily as workers became infected with the virus.

“Since then, nearly all your meatpacking plants have reopened, often leading to a resurgence of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases in and around the communities of your meatpacking facilities – an indication of inadequate protections to keep workers safe,” the letter said. “Some reports estimate over 27,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 90 have died, though your companies’ lack of accurate and timely reporting mean the numbers could be significantly higher.”

Meat and poultry processing plants have been hotspots for COVID-19 infections among workers. Warren and Booker claim that the 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.”

On April 24, Smithfield issued a statement saying it has many practices in place to protect its employees.

“We are doing everything in our power to help protect our team members from COVID-19 in the workplace. We moved quickly to implement an extensive array of COVID-19 protocols and practices,” it said. “During this pandemic, our entire industry is faced with an impossible choice: continue to operate to sustain our nation’s food supply or shutter in an attempt to entirely insulate our employees from risk. It’s an awful choice; it’s not one we wish on anyone. It is impossible to keep protein on tables across America if our nation’s meat plants are not running.”

JBS USA has also said it has adopted new safety measures, health protocols and worker benefits at all its facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Similarly, Cargill has said it has taken extra steps to focus on safety, and has offered temporary wage increases and bonuses and has waived co-pays for COVID-19 testing.

In response to the letter from Senators Warren and Booker, a Tyson spokesperson told Feed Strategy in an email that the company has “prioritized supplying meat to the U.S. domestic market and have voluntarily curtailed shipping those pork export items that are also used by domestic consumers to try to meet U.S. demand. Many of the pork products we sell internationally are specialty products that have extremely limited use in the United States such as snouts, feet, ears and organ meats. The export sale of these items adds considerable value to the overall price of hogs for U.S. farmers. Year to date in our current fiscal year, our pork exports to China represent only about 3% of our total pork production.”

Representatives from JBS and Smithfield have not responded to requests for comment for this story, while a spokesperson for Cargill said the company is still reviewing the letter and didn’t have an official statement.

In their letter, Warren and Booker ask the company CEOs to address 10 questions – several of them multi-part – regarding policies, procedures and data on worker illness, health and safety measures, exports and pricing. They have requested responses by June 30.

View our continuing coverage of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

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