Will Covid Start a Trade War Over U.S. Meat Exports?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

On June 21, the official China website posted that products from Tyson Foods’ Springdale, Arkansas plant “that have arrived or are about to arrive in Hong Kong will be temporarily suspended by the customs department.” Two days earlier, 455 Tyson Foods workers living in Benton and Washington counties in which Springdale is located were found to be COVID-19 positive. Most were asymptomatic.

The meat industry and public health groups say transmission of a virus like COVID-19, SARS or MERS through meat is unlikely. But apparently China, whose love of eating palm civet cats mired it into a huge SARS outbreak, is less sure. Scientists also have their doubts.

Researchers writing in the EMBO journal found the enzyme called ACE2 would bind to the SARS virus whether derived from humans or palm civet cats. Proteins on the virus “utilized palm-civet ACE2 efficiently,” write the researchers.

Researchers writing in the Journal of Virology concurred. “The efficiency with which virus from both [studied] human outbreaks utilized palm civet receptor is consistent with the recent transfer of SARS-CoV from palm civets to humans,” they wrote.

Dung and Eggs Thrown

This is not the first time other nations have balked at U.S. meat. In 2007, a rumor in Taiwan that a ban on the growth promoter ractopamine, widely used in the U.S., was to be lifted caused riots. Chanting “We refuse to eat pork that contains poisonous ractopamine,” and “Get out, USA pork,” protesters threw eggs at police, soldiers and reporters and pig dung at government buildings.

Europe has banned U.S. beef for years because of the use of the hormones oestradiol-17, zeranol, trenbolone acetate and melengestrol acetate in its production which the European Commission links to cancer.

Chicken has also been an issue. During the 2014 European elections, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “There will be no imports of chlorinated chicken from the U.S….I have prevented those imports for years, and I will continue to prevent them. No question.” Chlorinated chickens? Yes, the U.S. dips chickens into chlorine to prevent pathogens like salmonella which are ubiquitous in U.S. meat production.

And then there was BSE also known as mad cow disease. Within 24 hours of discovery of the U.S.’s first mad cow in 2003, Mexico, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea and ninety other countries banned U.S. beef. Ninety-eight percent of the United States’ three-billion-dollar overseas beef market evaporated almost overnight.

Government Supports Meat Suppliers Not Consumers

If COVID-19 were in U.S. meat, at least until it was cooked, would Big Meat and the government admit it? In 2003, the government said the first U.S. mad cow, which came from Canada, was located and “This product was disposed of in a landfill in accordance with Federal, State and local regulations.”

But the Los Angeles Times reported that despite “a voluntary recall aimed at recovering all 10,000 pounds of beef slaughtered at the plant the day the Washington state cow was killed, some meat, which could have contained the Washington cow, was sold to restaurants in several Northern California counties.” Worse, the identities of the restaurants were hidden from the public according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In the next few years, the government hid the identities of an Alabama and Texas ranch that both produced the first homegrown mad cows from the public. The USDA’s charter is to support food producers not the public so why would it want a meat supplier to suffer a loss of consumer dollars?

Is U.S. Meat From Infected Slaughterhouses Safe?

If the sudden rise in COVID-19 cases in some states is not explained by people going maskless or the recent street demonstrations, what about meat from the COVID-19 infected slaughterhouses which is now reaching stores and restaurants?

Since March, U.S. slaughterhouses have been incubators for COVID-19, closing and experiencing worker walkouts. Unable to make a profit because of slaughterhouse shutdowns, U.S. meat producers have been killing their animals onsite by gassing or suffocation reports the Guardian. An undercover video documents the shocking culls and agonized animals.

Tyson is the world’s second largest chicken, beef and pork producer. Being boycotted by China, a country with arguably the world’s worst food safety standards, adds to the list of Tyson’s safety and corruption violations which can be found here.

While China launched COVID-19, U.S. slaughterhouses are certainly perpetuating it and rural communities are increasingly affected. As the U.S. becomes one of the world’s top COIVD-19 hotspots, will other countries follow China’s actions and refuse meat exports? It has certainly happened before.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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