US senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Brooker have opened an investigation into several major meatpackers regarding their handling of pork exports and worker safety during the coronavirus pandemic.
The investigation will examine the actions of Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and Smithfield Foods, and follows reports of record pork exports to China despite warnings of potential meat shortages in the US.
A statement released by the office of Senator Warren alleges that these companies warned the US 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 meat plants open.
This led to President Trump signing an executive order which designated meat plants as ‘critical infrastructure’ in April, meaning many meat plants across the country reopened.
However, Warren and Brooker allege that the quantity of beef and pork products exported from 20 March to early June “actually exceeded the amount of lost production” from Covid-19-related problems.
Reuters’ analysis of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data revealed last month that as the number of pigs slaughtered each day had dropped by about 40% since mid-March, over the same period, shipments of American pork to China more than quadrupled.
In letters to the CEOs of Tyson, JBS USA, Cargill and Smithfield Foods, Warren and Booker demanded information about how each company protects workers who have or may contract the coronavirus, and how much meat they each export to China.
The letter stated: “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 requested answers from Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and Smithfield Foods by no later than 30 June 2020 about their actions and rationale for exporting record amounts of product to China, while at the same time warning of shortages.
Responding to the allegations, a spokesperson for Tyson told US news agency CNBC: “in recent months, we’ve prioritised supplying meat to the US domestic market and have voluntarily curtailed shipping those pork export items that are also used by domestic consumers to try to meet US demand.”
The spokesperson added that “many of the pork products we sell internationally are speciality products that have extremely limited use in the United States such as snouts, feet, ears and organ meats,” the exports of which “adds considerable value to the overall price of hogs for US farmers.”
Tyson Foods has temporarily halted production at several US meat plants during the pandemic due to Covid-19 outbreaks. For example, US officials revealed in March that more than half the workers tested for Covid-19 at Tyson Foods’ Perry, Iowa plant were infected with the virus. 730 of the plant’s employees were found to have contracted the virus.