WASHINGTON — Following an investigation into the handling of the coronavirus by meatpacking companies during the first few months of the pandemic, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) made letters public that were submitted to them by several companies in late June including Tyson Foods Inc., JBS USA, Cargill Inc. and Smithfield Foods Inc.
The senators released information from their investigation on July 24 and also called for the passage of an Essential Workers Bill of Right and Farm System Reform Act.
Warren and Booker also questioned the meatpackers’ decision to export meat products to China while claiming there were possible shortages of meat in the United States during the first months of the pandemic.
Following the inquiry, Tyson, JBS and Smithfield did not disclose the amount of meat exported during the pandemic. Cargill said it did not export any beef or turkey from the United States to China during 2020. JBS USA said that less than 10% of its market share of pork was exported to China.
The major meat companies explained in their responses how they adopted several new measures to combat COVID-19 including staggering shifts, adding physical barriers, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing where possible.
Although each company provided information, Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and chief executive officer for Smithfield, expressed concerns that the senators already established decisions before the investigation was over.
“While I appreciate this chance to highlight our employees and farmers’ tremendous work in response to COVID-19, the aggressive and accusatory tone of your letter suggests your offices have already formed conclusions without an attempt to speak with us or understand the industry that provides affordable meals to millions of Americans every day,” Sullivan wrote. “This is disappointing. This is especially disheartening after what our industry and its brave frontline workers have been through over the past several months.”
Sullivan also stated that the senators’ initial letter was “fraught with misinformation about our company and industry that appears to be strictly gleaned from media outlets that have made statements and inferences that grossly mischaracterize us, our values and response to COVID-19.”
He added that the senators’ letter revealed Warren and Booker had a “fundamental misunderstanding of our food supply chain, the agricultural sector and the role exports play in a healthy farm economy.”
Sullivan said the inquiry applies a “partisan lens” to Smithfield and the company did not have any interest in being a political pawn for either party in its efforts to produce food to feed consumers.
Smithfield’s response includes a list of thousands of company employees who express support for the company and its response.