Democratic sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker said Tuesday they are opening an investigation into Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill, and Smithfield Foods regarding pork export management and occupational safety issues during the coronavirus pandemic.
The move comes after reports that meat packaging companies exported a record amount of pork to China while warning of impending meat shortages and price increases in the United States.
Pork is an integral part of the U.S.-China trade agreement that President Donald Trump has hailed as one of his most important accomplishments. But while China buys some pork products and parts that Americans don't consume, the decision is made to export to China in bulk because American workers in pork factories across the country have contracted coronavirus or have died.
In letters to the CEOs of Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield Foods, Warren from Massachusetts and Booker from New Jersey asked for information about how each company protects workers who have or may infect the coronavirus and how much meat they export to China.
"Your companies have created the conditions under which your employees and the supply chain are vulnerable to the COVID 19 pandemic. Instead of addressing them, however, you have used the food shortage prospect to obtain a federal license that puts your employees at risk can be brought. " former presidential candidates wrote.
A Tyson spokesman said to CNBC in a statement: "In recent months, we have prioritized the delivery of meat to the U.S. domestic market and the shipping of pork exports, which are also used by domestic consumers, to the U.S. Satisfying demand, voluntarily restricted. "
The spokesman added that "many of the pork products we sell internationally are specialty products that are used only to a very limited extent in the United States, such as snouts, feet, ears and organ meats," their exports "add significant value to the total price of pigs for US farmers. "
During Tyson's fiscal year, exports to China account for approximately 3% of total pork production.
Representatives JBS and Smithfield did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Cargill said he was still reviewing the letter.
In April, billionaire John Tyson, chairman of the country's largest meat processor, Tyson Foods, published a full-page advertisement in several of the country's most read newspapers, warning that "the food supply chain is breaking" days before Trump issued an executive order for the the plants must remain open. His command came when an increasing number of workers indicated that they were infected with the virus in working conditions that required frequent close contact in a confined space.
Still, some groceries told CNBC when they saw signs of the lack Tyson had warned of. A Kroger spokesman said there was "a lot of protein in the supply chain," while a spokesman for Texas grocer H-E-B said they were putting new limits on customers' meat purchases, according to John Tyson's announcement, because they feared to stock up.
These actions were quoted by Booker and Warren.
"In April, when thousands of your workers fell ill due to your own inability or unwillingness to implement worker protection, your companies warned that the country is dangerously close to our meat supply and that the country is breaking the food supply chain, "while federal, state and local officials are being publicly urged to keep plants open," they wrote.
"Their warnings of possible bottlenecks have caused retailers to limit the amount of meat customers can buy."
In the first phase of the U.S.-China agreement, Beijing agreed to buy $ 12.5 billion of agricultural goods from the U.S. this year and another $ 19.5 billion in 2021. This agreement was seen as a blessing for the meat processors and the farmers who supply them. Many of them are located in major swing states like Iowa.
Trump assured major meat industry CEOs in a private call in April that despite the warning of possible bottlenecks, he was not interested in restricting pork exports to China. On Monday, Trump tweeted that the "China Trade Deal is fully intact" after White House trade advisor Peter Navarro made comments that implied the deal hadn't materialized. Navarro later said his comments had been taken out of context.
By February, pork and meat exports accounted for 31% of total US production, according to the US Meat Export Federation. Just over a third of these exports went to China, CNBC previously reported. In the first four months of 2020, the U.S. was well on the way to exporting 1.1 million tons of pork, an increase of 35% over the previous year, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.