Smithfield: Sioux Falls plant exports only 'underutilized' meat cuts to China

Published: May. 14, 2020 at 11:21 AM CDT
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Smithfields Foods says they are continuing to focus on the U.S. meat supply as meat processors face scrutiny over increased exports to China.

A spokesperson for Smithfield Foods says a majority of meat being exported to China consist of "underutilized" products that are generally not consumed in the U.S.

Meat supply problems

The meat supply has faced increased pressure recently as several processing plants, including Smithfield's plant in Sioux Falls, were temporarily shuttered due to COVID-19 outbreaks that sickened hundreds of workers.

Late last month, President Donald Trump

labeling meat processing plants vital infrastructure, requiring them to stay open.

The meat processing industry then faced criticism following a

that indicated that meat exports to China have increased even as supply dropped amid the shutdowns. Critics argued the point of the executive order was to strengthen the U.S. meat supply.

U.S. meat processors argue that export markets are very complex and that some statistics can be misleading.

"Much of what is exported are items that attract little or no interest from domestic consumers like offal and underutilized muscle cuts," said Keira Lombardo, Smithfield Foods Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs." For the most part, the U.S. does not export packaged meats products like bacon, ham and sausage.”

Offal are meat cuts made with the internal organs of an animal, including kidneys, tripe, and tongue. National Hog Farmer has a useful explanation


“Specific to Sioux Falls, 100% of what is exported to China is offal," Lombardo said. "No packaged meats products at all are shipped to China."

Background for exports to China

Pork exports to China had increased over the past couple of years after the

decimated a large portion of the country's herd. This increase was interrupted during President Trump's trade war but rebounded again in January when Trump signed a new trade deal with China.

The coronavirus pandemic hit the meat processing industry especially hard due to the close-quarters nature of the industry. At Smithfield's Sioux Falls plant, more than 800 workers were diagnosed with COVID-19, two of whom later died. The plant temporarily closed in mid-April, and only began a phased reopening last week.

Meantime, several processing plants have begun shifting their production to focus on domestic products rather than exported products, but they say this is a process that takes time.

“Meat processors routinely designate certain lines to be retail, foodservice or export focused, and the product is produced according to customer specifications," Lombardo said. "Food supply chains are complex and products for one trade channel or market cannot always be immediately reconfigured for another.”

The Associated Press reports meat industry officials say that if companies manage to keep plants operating, there should be plenty of supply to satisfy both the U.S. and export markets.