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Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker press meatpackers on exports to China

A JBS meat processing facility in Beardstown, Ill. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have questioned how companies like JBS could warn of pandemic shortages while exporting record amounts of pork to China.
A JBS meat processing facility in Beardstown, Ill. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have questioned how companies like JBS could warn of pandemic shortages while exporting record amounts of pork to China.NYT

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.

Sens. 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.

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“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,” Warren and Booker wrote.

The letter was prompted by an article in The New York Times last week detailing how pork exports to China totaled a record 129,000 tons in April, when the profitable demand in that country surged.

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 Donald 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.

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Data shows meat exports continued to surge in May. Exports of poultry increased 28% 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% from a year earlier, reaching their highest level since at least 2009. JBS accounted for half of those shipments, according to Panjiva.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.