As leaders warned of US meat shortages, overseas exports of pork and beef continued
When US meat production slumped in April after a rash of coronavirus outbreaks and closings in processing plants across the country, industry and political leaders raised the alarm.
Factory closings "dangerously marginalized our country in terms of our meat supply," warned Kenneth Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods, the country's largest pork producer, in a public message on April 6.
When closings worsened three weeks later, John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, wrote his name on a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post and the New York Times, warning that America's "food supply chain is breaking".
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"Our plants need to stay operational so we can provide our families in America with food," said Tyson.
The next day, President Donald Trump threw an industry lifeline. He appealed to the Defense Production Act to explain that keeping meat factories open and running was crucial. He had used the authority only once before: to ramp up the production of personal protective equipment. The move increased American meat processing to a privileged position.
"It is important that beef, pork and poultry processors in the food supply chain continue to work and complete orders to ensure continued protein supply to Americans," Trump wrote in his executive order.
However, Americans were never at risk of serious meat deficiency, according to a US TODAY investigation based on an analysis of US Department of Agriculture data and interviews with meat industry analysts.
Instead, some critics say, the fear was used to justify the executive regulation, which offered some liability protection for meat packaging companies. A unified set of rules has also been created, set by the federal government to keep facilities open, rather than leaving the closure of meat packaging operations to a patchwork of government and local health agencies.
Amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19, a worker in a Dallas grocery store is stocking chicken in the meat product department on Wednesday, April 29, 2020.
"We have been very skeptical of these allegations of bottlenecks," said Ben Lilliston, co-executive director of the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, which is committed to fair and sustainable food systems. "I think they could use the food shortage idea as a lever to accomplish these two things."
Federal data reviewed by the US TODAY shows that hundreds of millions of pounds of meat continued to be exported, even though American beef and pork production fueled from mid-March to the executive decree over a six-week period. The amount of beef and pork products exported during this period actually exceeded the amount of lost production compared to 2019.
Lilliston pointed out that the industry had never used meat stores in "cold stores" in the middle of the supply chain, indicating weak supply.
In fact, red meat and poultry products in cold stores grew by around £ 40 million from March to April and reached £ 2.5 billion, according to USDA data.
"Cold store can tell you something. … If the levels are still pretty high there, that means they haven't tapped it, ”said Lilliston.
Other experts also differentiated between the "spot lack" of meat - temporary lack of some products in some places - that increased in early May and a really critical lack of high protein products.
"We're going to run out of meat," Steve Meyer, an economist at Kerns & Associates, an agricultural commodities company in Iowa, told USA TODAY at the end of April. "Buy what you need and leave it to someone else, and I think we'll all fix it."
Others say it is more complicated. Economists warn that a sharp cut in exports to support domestic deliveries could affect long-term trade relationships and potentially backfire as companies lose a profit motive to slaughter more animals. And Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute industry group, said efforts to stabilize the industry should ensure that there is never a serious shortage.
"Although consumers were less diverse or could be meat-deficient in certain regions, this was not a widespread deficiency," said Little. “It never came to a point where we thought the Americans had no access to food. Our companies would never want to see that. That is why it was so important to be able to continue operations. "
However, Tony Corbo, a senior representative of the government's Food & Water Watch nonprofit, said he sees a separation between the alarming language the industry used in April and continued exports.
"There is this mismatch between the Tysons of the world and the Smithfields of the world who wring their hands and say that this will cause all sorts of disruption to domestic meat supplies while exporting behind everyone's back." Corbo said.
Production decreases with increasing exports
USDA data shows that beef and pork production declined sharply in the crucial month before Trump's executive order. From March 20 to April 24, industry produced £ 171m less beef and pork than in the same period last year.
But the industry exported about £ 636 million over the same period, almost four times the deficit. That number has since grown to over £ 1.3 billion exported until early June.
And while the United States exports significant amounts of meat products like feet and tail that most Americans do not eat, data from the US Meat Export Federation shows that these products accounted for less than 25% of its export weight in April.
Joe Schuele, vice president of communications for the association, said some pork and beef products are more popular overseas, even with non-varietal meat. These include the export of beef short plate, a tough and fatty meat, to Japan and pork picnic, a shoulder cut popular in Mexico.
The federal export figures do not indicate which cuts are exported.
The data show that general trends in meat production and exports diverged and grew further apart in early April, resulting in Trump's executive order. During these several weeks, beef and pork production fell below the 2019 level, but exports rose above last year's levels. In the week ending April 23, industry exported £ 98.6 million pork overseas, the second highest total in 2020.
According to Lilliston, the sustained surge in exports was not surprising. The country's largest meat companies, including JBS and Cargill, are now operating worldwide and the products are going where the greatest value is, he said.
"It is not their mission to feed US citizens," said Lilliston. “They see the United States as a really important market, perhaps its most important market. But it's not "Our job is to fill their grocery stores so people have enough to eat."
Hli Yang, a Tyson spokesman, said the criticism was unfair.
"We export responsibly and assess market dynamics, such as the impact of COVID-19 in the United States, before we make decisions," said Yang.
Yang added that the company had "prioritized" beef and pork sales in the US market.
"We also voluntarily restricted beef and pork exports that suit local consumers' tastes to try to meet US demand in this challenging time," said Yang.
Smithfield's executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, Keira Lombardo, said there is a delay between production and export, meaning that food that was exported at the height of the pandemic was "ordered and processed" months earlier.
"Recently, US exports have declined due to lower COVID-19 production," said Lombardo.
The White House did not answer questions about Trump's executive order for this story and referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA did not respond to requests for comments.
Explosive growth in exports
Agricultural economists say that improving domestic supply by limiting exports may not be as easy as it seems.
In the past few decades, the American meat industry has increasingly relied on exports to generate growth and profit. The U.S. is now exporting more meat than ever, growing from less than 2% of production in 1960 to around 23% of pork, 16% of chicken, and 11% of beef in 2019, according to USDA data.
"Most of the demand for meat was not in the United States," said Jayson Lusk, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University. "It was outside the country, so it is not surprising that US manufacturers looking to expand their markets looked elsewhere to find additional customers."
2020, most recently spurred on by the Trump administration's revision of trade agreements with China and Mexico, should be a banner year for exports, especially pork. Farmers had expanded their herds expectantly and, after the outbreak of COVID-19, left a flood that caused some farmers to carry out traumatic mass secretions and put additional pressure on the plants to open again.
Experts also say that exports down to the agricultural level are deeply rooted in the supply chain. Some animals are primarily raised to send certain cuts overseas, while the rest of the animal flows to the United States.
Smithfied's representative, Lombardo, says meat processing plants are typically equipped to produce specific products, be it retail, restaurants, or export. Converting for another use takes time.
"Food supply chains are complex and products for one market cannot always be reconfigured for another immediately," said Lombardo.
Without an incentive to export, domestic supply could also decline, others said.
"I think those who consider limiting exports overestimate the extent to which this would increase domestic consumption and underestimate the adverse economic impact," said Glynn Tonsor, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University.
Some remain skeptical that restricting exports would affect domestic supply. Roger Horowitz, professor of history and meat industry expert at the University of Delaware, believes that companies would find a way to use all of the domestic animal ingredients or to transfer costs to consumers, if for less money.
"Export restrictions could affect profits, but not American consumers," said Horowitz.
Lusk added that short-term domestic gains made by restricting exports could also result in long-term damage to trade relationships.
"The problem is that there are real people and real relationships at the other end of these trade deals," Lusk said. “If you cancel a contract today, will you lose that customer next month? What does this mean for the profitability of the packaging plant and the pork producers? "
The risks for workers
Delivered to the economic equation are the country's meat packaging workers who run the risk of getting COVID-19 at work. While the Trump administration and industry leaders say workers' conditions have improved since last month's job security guidelines were implemented, workers continue to fall ill.
In pursuit of public reports, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found that 10,000 meat packaging workers had been sick with at least 45 deaths by May 5. These numbers have since grown to more than 24,000 infections and at least 90 deaths.
For a plant inspector within the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), it was not a good thing that officials raised the specter of meat shortages as exports continued. The FSIS employs several thousand inspectors who visit meat packaging plants every day. At least four have died of COVID-19.
According to the inspector, who spoke to the US TODAY on condition of anonymity, FSIS officials first contacted the inspectors in April and said it was imperative to stay at work despite the risks of COVID-19.
Tyson Foods installed plastic barriers between the workstations of its meat and poultry factories to prevent the transmission of the corona virus.
"Because meat supplies to all Americans, including inspectors' families, children, and grandchildren, could fail, leading to widespread meat shortages and malnutrition," the employee recalled the officials.
Agency officials later changed the tone of the communication and are now simply thanking the inspectors for their work, instead of raising concerns about the food shortages that the USDA inspector described as valued.
But the USDA leadership still uses the argument publicly. In a June 9 statement announcing that meat production had returned to 95% of its 2019 level, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue reiterated efforts to keep meat packaging companies open by exposing domestic food supply risks cited.
"I would like to thank the staff of the patriotic and heroic meat packaging plant, the companies and the local authorities for putting them back into operation quickly and again offering a large selection of meat to the millions of Americans who depend on them", Perdue said.
Debbie Berkowitz, who served as chief of staff and senior policy advisor to the Occupational Health and Safety Authority for six years and is now director of the National Employment Law Project's occupational health and safety program, criticized the administration and said occupational safety was at risk of wrong premise.
"You just decided that these lives are okay to sacrifice ... and what for?" Berkowitz said. So many plants have sent their pork to China. It wasn't about feeding America. "
According to Lilliston, the tension between occupational safety, domestic supplies, and exports highlights a potential weakness in today's US meat industry. He advocates a reassessment of how much power is in the hands of a few meat packaging companies whose main job is to increase exports.
"They are not ready to give it up, even if there are problems here inland," said Lilliston. "It really shows the strength that I kind of think of this kind of export-above-all mentality."
No export restrictions, but can still decrease
Although it was within its power to restrict exports under COVID-19, Trump declined to do so under the April 28 regulation. This emerged from a previous personal protective equipment order that enforced the defense equipment law while telling manufacturers like 3M that "it is the policy of the United States to prevent domestic brokers, dealers and redirect other intermediary material (PPE) overseas. ”
On May 1, CNBC cited current and former Trump administration officials when they reported that Trump was asked in a private conversation with meat industry CEOs about the prospect of restricting meat exports.
Trump replied that "at the time, he was not interested in limiting exports," CNBC reported.
The White House declined to comment on the US TODAY.
While US meat production recovered, exports stabilized until May.
The amount of pork shipped overseas plummeted the week after Trump's executive order and fell below the 2019 level. Since then, growth has risen year-on-year, but beef and pork exports have been at one since the implementing regulation Downward trend.
As meat production nears 2019 levels and signals a return to an appearance of normalcy, the White House didn't say whether Trump made a decision under which circumstances he would cancel the order.
This article originally appeared in the U.S. TODAY: Despite Trump's warnings, meat packers, meat shortages were unlikely
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