This spring, while many Americans struggled to find their favorite foods, including meat, on store shelves, thousands of tons of pork were shipped overseas to China and Japan.
According to a new report from the U.S. Meat Export Federation, April pork exports to Japan totaled 39,232 metric tons, a 28% increase from one year ago, while pork exports to China and Hong Kong totaled 116,928 metric tons, setting another record at more than triple the volume from a year ago. That figure also surpassed the previous high reached in December.
The report's release comes two months after one of the country's largest meat producers issued a dire warning to the American public, claiming that there would be major meat shortages due to factories closing down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Deemed essential, many meat processing facilities were permitted to stay open even as tens of thousands of workers tested positive for the deadly virus.
In mid-April, Smithfield Foods (which is owned by China's WH Group), one of the nation’s largest pork producers, announced it would be closing one of its meat-processing plants in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a facility responsible for 4-5% of all U.S. pork production.
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The closure came after at least 300 of the plant’s 3,700 workers tested positive for coronavirus.
“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply. It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running," Kenneth M. Sullivan, Smithfield's president and chief executive officer, said in a statement issued at the time. "These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers."
Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill Inc. were also forced to close several U.S. plants after numerous workers tested positive for the virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April 9 and April 27, 4,913 workers from 115 meat or poultry processing facilities in 19 states tested positive for COVID-19 and 20 people died within that timeframe. According to a map of outbreaks compiled by the nonprofit news organization Food & Environment Reporting Network, over 27,000 meatpacking workers have tested posted for COVID-19 as of June 23.
While the number of exports may seem alarming given warnings of shortages in American markets, some experts say being able to ship pork to China during these difficult times was still beneficial.
Dermot Hayes, a professor of economics and finance at Iowa State University, told TODAY that China usually buys about 10-12% of all pork produced in the U.S., but the country imports pork products that many Americans don't consume, like feet, as well as carcass meat.
“China buys carcass meat because they have the labor and facilities (to) cut and debone the product," Hayes said. “These products are not in demand here and when China is not buying we render them.”
Hayes reiterated that what consumers experienced as meat shortages in some cases wasn’t due to a scarcity of animals, but rather it was the lack of available labor to turn these animals into retail-ready meat U.S. consumers actually purchase.
“The problem was so bad that some farmers had to euthanize pigs even though meat was being rationed," he said.
When reached via email, Keira Lombardo, Smithfield's executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, told TODAY that "while the USDA data reflects product shipped at the height of the pandemic, the meat was actually ordered and processed in the months prior to COVID-19 ..." and reiterated that "much of what is exported are items that attract little or no interest from domestic consumers like variety meats/offal and underutilized muscle cuts."
The company also elaborated on its April warning, explaining why it feared a meat shortage in the U.S. even though it still had plenty to export.
“During the time in which Smithfield facilities closed, many other facilities across the nation were shuttered as well or operating at significantly reduced capacity," Lombardo said. "The aggregate impact of this is what resulted in disruptions up and down the supply chain. A number of these facilities harvest live animals, which produce the raw material for packaged meats products like bacon, ham, and sausage consumed by Americans."
Tyson told the New York Times that the amount of pork being exported to China was only 3% of its total production since October.
“In recent months, we’ve 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,” the company told the New York Times.
Multiple calls and emails requesting clarification from Tyson Foods were not returned.
In April, President Trump signed an executive order that compelled meat processing plants to stay open amid the pandemic by argument of the Defense Production Act.
"The reason for this EO is there were discussions among certain processing companies (Tysons, for example) to keep only 20% of facilities open. The vast majority of processing plans could have shut down, reducing processing capacity in the country by as much as 80%," an administration official explained in a message to NBC News at the time.
While keeping meat processing facilities open may have been good for business (and kept store shelves from running totally bare), thousands of factory workers tested positive for the deadly virus and at least 89 have died this year, according to CDC figures.
Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told TODAY there is “no doubt” things were mismanaged at meat packing plants during the pandemic. Had proper measurements been taken, Jha said, many lives could’ve been saved.
“(The meat processing plants) could have remained open safely by reducing the number of workers, creating a lot more space between them, screening and testing them on an ongoing basis, and providing support for those who were sick so they didn't feel the need to come in,” he explained.
Since few companies failed to enact major changes earlier, more workers were susceptible to contracting the deadly virus.
“It’s a travesty. The fact that some of the meat production was simply for profit makes it even worse,” he added.