A 10-meter-tall hamburger model commissioned by Burger King is on display in Shenyang city, northeast China's Liaoning province, in October 2017. Photo: AFP

US President Donald Trump ordered meat processing plants to remain open to safeguard the country’s food supply even as workers became ill and died. However, while US consumers face shortages, the plants have increasingly been exporting to China, according to a Reuters analysis of government data.

Trump, who is in a heated public row with Beijing over its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act on April 28 to keep plants open. Now he is facing criticism from some lawmakers, consumers and plant employees for putting workers at risk in part to help ensure China’s meat supply.

Meat buyers in China ramped up imports from around the world as a pig disease decimated its herd, the world’s largest, and pushed Chinese pork prices to record highs. The supply shock drove China to pay more for American meat than other countries, and even US consumers, since late 2019.

“We know that over time exports are critically important. I think we need to focus on meeting domestic demand at this point,” said Mike Naig, the agriculture secretary in the top US pork-producing state of Iowa who supported Trump’s order.

Processors including Smithfield Foods, owned by China’s WH Group Ltd, Brazilian-owned JBS USA and Tyson Foods Inc temporarily closed about 20 US meat plants as the virus infected thousands of employees, prompting meatpackers and grocers to warn of shortages. Some plants have resumed limited operations as workers afraid of getting sick stay home, Reuters reported.

The disruptions mean consumers could see 30% less meat in supermarkets by the end of May, at prices 20% higher than last year, according to Will Sawyer, lead economist at agricultural lender CoBank.

While pork supplies tightened as the number of pigs slaughtered each day plunged by about 40% since mid-March, shipments of American pork to China more than quadrupled over the same period, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Smithfield, which China’s WH Group bought for $4.7 billion in 2013, was the biggest US exporter to China from January to March, according to Panjiva, a division of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Smithfield shipped at least 13,680 tonnes by sea in March, Panjiva said, citing its most recent data.

Smithfield, the world’s biggest pork processor, said in April that US plant closures were pushing retailers “perilously close to the edge” on supplies.

The company is now retooling its namesake pork plant in Smithfield, Virginia, to supply fresh pork, bacon and ham to more US consumers, according to a statement. The move is an about-face after the company reconfigured the plant last year to process hog carcasses for the Chinese market, employees, local officials and industry sources told Reuters.

The Virginia facility currently serves export markets like China and domestic customers, according to Smithfield. Most US pork processors routinely export products to more than 40 international markets, company spokeswoman Keira Lombardo said.

The virus infected about 850 employees at another Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Across the US industry, about 5,000 infections and 20 deaths occurred, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“That tragic outcome is all the worse when the food being processed is not going to our nation’s families,” said US Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut. “That is what the Defense Production Act is all about: protecting America’s national interests, not China’s.”

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.