Washington, DC, June 23, 2020 – United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are opening an investigation of Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and Smithfield Foods after reports that the meatpacking companies, while threatening the American public with impending meat shortages and jacking up prices, exported a record amount of product to China. The companies used the COVID-19 pandemic — and warning of shortages — as cover while they endangered workers, dramatically increased prices for American consumers, and successfully lobbied the President to sign an executive order designating their plants as critical infrastructure and allowing them to continue operating in an unsafe fashion.
“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,” wrote the senators in their letter.
In April, while thousands of meatpacking workers were falling ill, these companies warned that America 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. Their warnings of potential shortages prompted retailers to ration consumers’ meat purchases and increase prices. Food inflation, led by high meat prices, rose at its highest level in nearly a decade, with the beef index experiencing its largest-ever monthly increase of 10.8% in May. The Trump Administration responded by issuing an executive order designating meat plants as “critical infrastructure.”
But during this same time period, these companies reportedly were exporting a record amount of pork – 129,000 tons – to consumers in China. In total, these companies exported more than 1.3 billion pounds of beef and pork from March 20 through early June, and the “amount of beef and pork products exported over that time period actually exceeded the amount of lost production” from COVID-19-related problems.
Since President Trump’s executive order, nearly all meatpacking plants have reopened, often leading to resurgence of COVID-19 cases in and around the communities of these facilities – an indication of inadequate protections to keep workers safe. Some reports estimate over 27,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 90 have died, but because of a lack of accurate and timely reporting the true costs could be significantly higher.
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Upon reopening, many plants failed to implement worker protections, like testing and social distancing. Instead, these companies manipulated this crisis to achieve substantial deregulatory measures that placed their workers at even greater risk, like increasing line speeds.
“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,” wrote the senators.
Warren and Booker requested answers from Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and Smithfield Foods by no later than June 30, 2020 about their actions and rationale for exporting record amounts of product to China while at the same time warning of shortages.
Senator Warren has been leading the charge against corporate profiteering during the COVID-19 crisis in the Senate. In April, she unveiled the Essential Workers Bill of Rights which would ensure enforceable health and safety protections, protect whistleblowers, and hold corporations accountable to keeping their workers safe. Senators Warren and Booker joined Senate Democrats asking USDA for specific safety guarantees for workers at meat processing facilities. The Senators also joined Senator Brown and other Senate Democrats requesting a revision of the President’s Executive Order to ensure facilities meet safety guidelines before re-opening.