US meat processing plants have been increasingly exporting to China while domestic consumers face shortages, according to a Reuters analysis of government data.

President Donald Trump, who has been engaged in a public dispute with Beijing over its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, is facing criticism that he has put workers at risk in part to help ensure China’s meat supply.

The President previously issued an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to force plants to stay open, citing the need to protect the nation’s food supply.

The meat industry has been hard hit by the pandemic and Trump’s order followed the shuttering of plants by numerous processors including JBS, Smithfield Foods and Cargill.

Some plants have resumed only limited operations as workers afraid of contracting the virus remain home, and according to CoBank lead economist Will Sawyer, cited by Reuters, the disruptions mean consumers could see 30% less meat in supermarkets by the end of May.

However, Reuters’ analysis of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data has revealed that as the number of pigs slaughtered each day dropped by about 40% since mid-March, over the same period shipments of American pork to China more than quadrupled.

For the period January to March, pork exports to China set a record, and shipments to all destinations in March set a record for any month, according to USDA.

Smithfield Foods shipped at least 13,680 tonnes of pork by sea to China during March, according to data from global trade insights firm Panjiva, as cited by Reuters. In a statement, the processor said it is now retooling its namesake pork plant in Smithfield, Virginia, to supply pork products to more US consumers.

Pork processor Fresh Mark has resumed making bacon and ham for global customers at an Ohio facility it shut last month over Covid-19 cases. The firm said exports are a small part of its business.

China had already ramped up meat imports due to the decimation of its pig herd by disease, when in January this year Beijing and the US signed a deal wherein China promised to increase purchases of US farm goods. At this point the US’ own imminent supply problems could not be foreseen.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, across the nation’s meat processing industry there have now been approximately 5,000 infections and 20 deaths.

“That tragic outcome is all the worse when the food being processed is not going to our nation’s families,” said US Democrat Rosa DeLauro, cited by Reuters.

“That is what the Defense Production Act is all about: protecting America’s national interests, not China’s.”