Smithfield, Tysons Said Their Plants Had to Stay Open to Feed America. They Shipped Meat To China Instead.

Local hospital officials have reported a spike in COVID-19 cases at the Tyson Foods Inc., poultry processing plant on the Eastern Shore Wednesday April 29, 2020, in Temperanceville, Va. Coronavirus cases among workers at poultry plants on Virginia's Eastern Shore have become an increasing concern for local health officials.(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

By Elle Meyers

June 17, 2020

Tyson’s Virginia plant had over 250 COVID-19 cases. It closed for only three days.

In Virginia, meatpacking factories have largely stayed open during the coronavirus pandemic, despite becoming COVID-19 hot spots. An argument for doing that was the security of America’s food supply chain, but new reports indicate the companies continued exporting meat to China at the same time.

Smithfield and Tyson Foods, the latter of which owns a factory that became an epicenter of cases in Virginia, in April warned officials that the U.S could come dangerously close to running out of meat if plants closed because employees came down with the virus. 

But that same month, Tyson exported 1,289 tons of pork to China, the most since January 2017, according to the New York Times. Smithfield, which is headquartered in Virginia, exported 9,170 tons of pork to China, which the New York Times reports as “one of its highest monthly export totals to that market” since 2017.

Coronavirus cases at Tyson and Perdue meatpacking facilities in Virginia made up the majority of cases in Accomack County, according to health officials.

Tyson closed down its operations for three days to deep clean their facility after multiple employees caught the virus. After testing the company reported that 20% of the 1,282 team members who work at the facility tested positive, for a total of 257 coronavirus cases. According to Tyson, the majority of people with positive cases did not show any symptoms and “otherwise would not have been identified.”

Team members who test positive received paid leave and are allowed to return to work only when they have met recovery criteria outlined by the CDC and by Tyson.

Over 25,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and 89 have died, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, which has been compiling data on the outbreak.

The New York Times reported that the amount of pork exported to China raised eyebrows among industry analysts, considering they had argued plants needed to stay open in order to feed the American public.

“The meat companies were saying the sky was falling, and it really wasn’t,” Tony Corbo told the New York Times. Corbo is a senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch, a consumer and environmental watchdog group. “It wasn’t that there was not enough supply. It was that the supply was being sent abroad.”

According to Reuters, Smithfield Foods’ plant located in southeastern Virginia focuses primarily on processing and packaging pork products to send to China. Workers told the publication that about two thirds of their production had shifted away from American products to shipments for China. 

Even though pork consumption in the U.S has been relatively stable since the 1980s, the pork packaging industry has been expanding in the U.S in recent years.

“We are talking record pork production last year and the year before that,” said Dennis Smith in a New York Times interview. Smith serves as a livestock analyst at Archer Financial Services. “The producers need exports.”

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