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From left, former housing secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019, in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

As part of an investigation into the spread of coronavirus at U.S. meat plants, Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker released responses from major producers that defended their operations during the pandemic.

The four biggest meatpackers -- Tyson Foods Inc., JBS USA, Cargill Inc. and Smithfield Foods Inc.  -- pointed to measures such as staggering shifts and sanitation systems, but gave soft responses when it came to implementing social distancing in production areas of the plants where workers are often in elbow-to-elbow conditions.

The letters amount to some of the most extensive explanations to date about how the meat producers responded to the crisis.

The companies gave no indication that workers were consistently being spaced apart on production lines. Cargill said it was raising "awareness" over maintaining distance, while Tyson said it installed barriers on production lines where "social distancing is not possible." JBS said it increased spacing in cafeterias, but didn't cite distancing measures for production lines.

Meanwhile, Smithfield gave a more straightforward response.

"For better or worse, our plants are what they are," Chief Executive Officer Ken Sullivan said. "Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? OK. Where? To say it is a challenge is an understatement."

Thousands of America's meat workers have fallen ill with coronavirus as infections spread rapidly through the cramped factories, and dozens have died. While companies took steps to protect employees -- including by installing plexiglass barriers, distributing protective equipment and setting up hand-washing stations -- experts and analysts have repeatedly warned that workers would remain vulnerable without an increase in physical distance on production lines.

The senators criticized the companies for not adequately allowing workers to keep 6 feet away from one another and for shipping pork and beef overseas to meet export orders during the outbreak.

None of the companies gave specifics on the number of cases or deaths at their plants.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear that these giant meatpackers can use their power to exploit their workers for profit," Warren said in a statement. "We also need to massively reform our broken food and farm system to give workers, farmers, and consumer real bargaining power."

Following are highlights of the responses sent to the senators from the companies:

Smithfield

Smithfield CEO Sullivan in a letter said plants weren't designed to operate in a pandemic and that the company installed physical barriers where social distancing was impossible for workers. "For better or worse, our plants are what they are," Sullivan wrote. "Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? Okay. Where? To say it is a challenge is an understatement."

"Candidly, we are weary of critics in the media who are detached from the realities of this worldwide pandemic. Namely, that we must produce food, and somebody has to do it."

The company didn't furlough or lay off any of its 42,000 U.S. workers.

About 7,000 workers at six plants that were shuttered were still paid during halts.

Tens of millions of dollars were spent on personal protective equipment.

Worker pay, expanded healthcare and PPP costs will "total in the hundreds of millions of dollars for our company in just four months."

"We have continued to run our processing plants, distribution centers, farms and feed mills for one reason: to sustain our nation's food supply during the COVID-19 pandemic. Operating is not a question of profits; it is a question of necessity."

JBS USA

JBS said it maintained operations only when it was safe to do so and that it was the first in the industry to voluntarily close a facility to contain the spread of the coronavirus."

As cases in the U.S. continue to rise, it is clear that the interventions we have put in place in all of our facilities will become our new normal until a vaccine or more effective control measures are identified," said Andre Nogueira, CEO of JBS USA.

JBS said it hired three independent epidemiologists to review its efforts. It also installed ultraviolet germicidal air sanitation and plasma air technology to neutralize potential viruses in plant ventilation systems.

Exports accounted for about 12% of U.S. beef production and 28% of pork output in the first quarter. JBS USA had a market share of less than 10% of pork exports to China in the period and that number remains less than 10% throughout the year as well."

It's important to note that exported goods are largely comprised of products not readily preferred by U.S. consumers, such as pig's feet, livers and bone-in products. Exporting these goods that have little to no demand in the U.S. helps increase the value of hogs and maintains the nearly 800,000 jobs in the meat packing and processing industry. Such products, if not exported, would otherwise lead to lower captured value or our producers and result in less availability of chops, steaks and hamburgers that Americans enjoy."

Cargill

"Maintaining a safe workplace has long been a core value of our company.

Cargill recognizes that the well-being of our plant employees is integral to our business and to the continuity of the food supply chain throughout the country."

The company "continued to focus on education and awareness of social distancing inside and outside of work. This includes encouraging employees not to share food during meals."

Cargill said it installed protective barriers on the production floor between employees and "provided full face shields for personnel performing any job where the installation of a protective barrier is not feasible due to the movements inherent in the performance of the job."

Cargill stressed its protein business in the U.S. comprises of beef and turkey and export volumes of these products were down from March 1 to May 31 compared to a year earlier. This decrease continued in the first three weeks of June. Cargill's boxed-beef exports to Hong Kong fell more than a third in this period and the company has not exported any beef or turkey to China in 2020."

Cargill has maintained its ability to fulfill U.S. customers' orders and continues to provide a steady supply of protein for the U.S. Market," said Jon Nash, president of Cargill's protein business in North America."

Finally, there has been no increase in livestock brought in from outside of the United States. All of our turkeys and fed cattle are sourced from U.S. growers, producers and feedlots."

Tyson

Tyson said it remains "committed to doing our best to modify and fine tune our protective measures in an effort to keep our team members safe while also providing nutritious food to America's families."

The company's safety measures include "creating barriers and/or requiring face shields on production lines where social distancing is not possible."

Tyson said it chattered space of international cargo flights, to expedite delivery of face coverings, face shields, hand sanitizer and gloves by mid-April, which it said was earlier than some other companies.

Tyson said it was the first company in the industry to proactively initiate a testing strategy for its workers and has likely conducted more employee testing than any other company in the U.S.Tyson said it "prioritized the U.S. market" and that a "large protion of meat exports from the U.S. are cuts of meat or portions of the animal (e.g. organ meats, chicken paws, etc.) that are not desired by our customers or consumers.""Exporting does not threaten the American meat supply."

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