Tuesday, May 12, 2020


We are being told that it’s going to be difficult to find fresh meat at the grocery stores as long as the coronavirus threat continues. And that if we find it, it’s going to cost a lot more than it did in pre-pandemic days.

There are, to be fair, a number of reasons for these shortages. Transportation costs have gone up and many meat processing facilities have been closed down around the country in recent months to prevent the spread of the virus. A recent survey found that many Wendy’s outlets didn’t have hamburgers on their menus anymore and pork is in short supply as the number of pigs processed on a monthly basis has dropped by 40% since mid-March.

Still, consumers who began running into shortages a few weeks ago might reasonably have expected them to ease as some states began allowing facilities to reopen. President Trump went so far as to invoke provisions of the 1950 Defense Production Act late last month to keep them open. That, however, isn’t likely to happen any time soon, so the understandable cravings for bacon burgers and bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches may take some time to satisfy.

The president opened himself to criticism from those who wanted to keep the plants closed as part of the “lockdown” that has gutted so much of the U.S. economy and because meat processing plants and the workers in such plants have proved particularly susceptible to the virus, but went ahead because of the shortages facing American consumers. It turns out that those who have gone back to work are processing pork that will never appear in U.S. grocery stores. It is instead being loaded on ships bound for China.

Few Americans searching for that elusive package of bacon realize it, but the shortages they are experiencing are exacerbated by the fact that during the same period in which American processors were cutting back or closed down, the Chinese were buying up most of the available U.S. pork and shipping it home to satisfy the Chinese craving for the meat. Since mid-March shipments of U.S. pork to China has quadrupled.

Two years ago China’s own pork production crashed when half the pigs raised there died or had to be killed to halt a swine flu epidemic. Since then Chinese interests have been buying all the pork available here and in most of the rest of the world as Chinese consumers are as addicted to pork as Americans.

One of this country’s largest pork producers, Smithfield, is actually owned by China’s WH Group. They bought the firm in 2013 for nearly five billion dollars and in March alone sent more than thirteen thousand tons of American pork to be sold on the Chinese domestic market. After purchasing Smithfield, the new owners reconfigured the company’s Smithfield, Virginia plant to concentrate on products to be shipped to China rather than sold here in the United States.

In normal times, U.S. farmers and particularly US pork producers ship much of what they produce to foreign customers because they produce far more than is needed here at home, but these are not normal times. While many U.S. retailers like Kroger’s and Costco have been rationing pork sales to U.S. consumers, their suppliers have been shipping more and more of what they produce to those foreign customers … and the largest of them is China.

The irony in this is that while it may not be politically correct to mention it, the pandemic that has forced so many U.S. processors to close down began in China creating untold suffering in this country and forcing American consumers to do without many of the products they enjoyed before the virus arrived here. Now, we discover that Americans are supposed to do without some of these products because what we need is being shipped to China so Chinese consumers won’t have to do without.

What a trade.

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