As Meatpackers Stoked Fears of a Shortage, U.S. Meat Exports Increased

Citing imminent shortages, the meat industry lobbied to keep packing plants open as Covid-19 tore through workers’ ranks. At the same time, U.S. meat exports increased.

Madison McVan Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Photo courtesy of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Last year, as the meatpacking industry’s frontline workers were infected with Covid-19 and the industry pushed claims of a meat shortage, companies in the U.S. exported more than $22 billion in meat products, continuing an upward trend in foreign sales since 2016.

Trade data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that in 2020 the value of American meat exports reached its highest level since 2014. Companies exporting meat products from the Midwest also fared well, increasing sales by about $500 million from 2019 to 2020.

In order to prevent plants from shutting down, the meatpacking industry lobbied the federal government to designate meatpacking plants as essential businesses, stoking fears of leaving consumers’ tables absent of beef, pork and chicken.

USA TODAY reported in June 2020 that, while meat production tanked from mid-March through the end of April, exports increased and the industry never had to tap into its reserves.

More than 50,000 meatpacking workers have contracted Covid-19 and nearly 250 have died, according to Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracking 

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools. Visit us online at www​.inves​ti​gatemid​west​.org

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Madison McVan, an investigative reporter at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, graduated from the University of Missouri in 2020 with degrees in Journalism and Latin American Studies. Before joining the Midwest Center, she worked for the Columbia Missourian and Missouri Info Corps, covering topics including state and local government, meatpacking plants and the coronavirus pandemic. She is fluent in Spanish and has published work in both Spanish and English. Originally from Pflugerville, Texas, she is now based in the Twin Cities.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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