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U.S. senators question meatpackers over exports to China during pandemic

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Two prominent U.S. Senate Democrats are pressing America’s top meatpackers to disclose by month’s end how much pork, beef and chicken they shipped to China during the coronavirus outbreak while warning of possible meat shortages at home.

The request from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker increases scrutiny of companies like Tyson Foods Inc TSN.N, JBS USA and Smithfield Foods, after thousands of meatpacking workers were infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Such companies exported 112,327 tonnes of U.S. pork to China in April, more than any previous month and up 257% from a year earlier, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The exports raise questions about why U.S. meat prices soared during the pandemic and President Donald Trump in April ordered slaughterhouses to stay open to protect the nation’s food supply, Warren and Booker said in a letter to Tyson, JBS, Smithfield and Cargill Inc this week.,

Reuters reported on May 11 that Trump, a Republican, was facing criticism from some lawmakers, consumers and plant employees for putting workers at risk in part to help ensure China’s meat supply.

“This pattern of behavior raises questions about whether you are living up to your commitments to the workers who produce your pork and beef; the communities in which you operate, and the nation’s consumers that rely on your products to feed their families,” Warren and Booker told the meat companies.

Tyson and JBS have said they reduced exports to focus on meeting U.S. demand. Smithfield retooled a plant to supply U.S. consumers, a year after workers said the company reconfigured the same facility to process hogs for China. Cargill said it does not export U.S. meat and poultry to China.

China’s demand for meat imports increased after a fatal pig disease decimated its herd and sent Chinese pork prices to record highs.

Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Tom Brown

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