Two prominent Democrats in the Senate are questioning how meatpacking companies could justify exporting record amounts to China in April while warning of a shortage of pork and beef across the United States.
Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey sent a letter late Monday to the chief executives of Smithfield, Tyson, Cargill and JBS, criticizing them for exporting to China at the same time they were lobbying the Trump administration to keep their plants open during the pandemic because they wanted to keep feeding Americans.
The senators said the companies were putting their workers’ lives in danger while also raising food prices for American consumers.
“This pattern of behavior raises questions about whether you are living up to your commitments to the workers who produce your pork and beef, the communities in which you operate and the nation’s consumers that rely on your products to feed their families,” Ms. Warren and Mr. Booker wrote.
Representatives for Tyson and Cargill declined to comment on the letter. Smithfield, which is owned by a Chinese company, and JBS did not return requests for comment.
The meat companies have said shortages across the United States were a legitimate concern. Dozens of their plants were forced to close through April and into May, as thousands of workers tested positive for the coronavirus and dozens died.
The companies said much of the exported meat had been produced weeks before it was shipped to China and before packing plants became hot spots for the virus. Since President Trump signed an executive order in late April to keep the plants operating, some of the large meat companies have switched their production to better meet domestic demand, they said.
Data shows that meat exports continued to surge in May. Exports of poultry increased 28 percent from a year earlier, according to Panjiva, the supply-chain research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence. And pork exports to China rose 590 percent from a year earlier, reaching their highest level since at least 2009. JBS accounted for half of those shipments, according to Panjiva.
The pork industry, in particular, had been banking on a boom in exports to China, the world’s largest consumer, after a thaw in the trade war with the United States late last year. The industry had been building up its processing and packing capacity and raising more pigs.
In their letter, Ms. Warren and Mr. Booker asked the companies to provide the number of virus cases in each of their facilities, which meatpackers like Smithfield have declined to disclose publicly unless required.
The senators have also asked for more detailed data on exports and price increases in the United States during the pandemic.
“These actions raise questions about the circumstances of the president’s executive order, your honesty with the American public about the reasons for higher food prices, and your commitment to providing a safe, affordable and abundant food supply for the nation,” they wrote.