Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest ham producer, is no longer as American as its spokesperson, walking butter statue Paula Dean. Why? Because its pork-producing Chinese counterpart has recently acquired the company, opening up a slew of concerns about food safety and increasing economic competition with China.
The $4.7 billion Shuanghui International paid to purchase Smithfield amounts to the largest-ever takeover of an American company by a Chinese company. Since the purchase on Wednesday, Smithfield has attempted to allay concerns by continually insisting that the deal was made so that China would get more pork — not so that China could start providing pork to America.
But regardless of their insistence, the multibillion-dollar deal is starting to highlight basic problems long ago discovered about imported food from China, and spark concerns that this record-breaking deal will set a precedent that will allow other Chinese companies to make even more headway into the American food market than they already have.
The United States government has had concerns about Chinese food exports for a while — a Congressional hearing this month called "The Threat of China's Unsafe Consumables" is only the latest in a long history of reports, hearings, and testimonies that paint a pretty nasty picture of the food produced in the world’s largest country.
"The health and safety, not only of the United States and Europe but that of the people around the world, has come to be dependent on the quality of goods imported from China. Yet, the task of inspecting and testing Chinese goods is beyond the ability of governments, considering the magnitude of that challenge," said Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), the head of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats.
So what kind of "magnitude" are we talking, here? As the New York Times aptly points out, it's kind of hard to find food in regular grocery stores that isn't from China. Tilapia, vanilla extract, mushrooms, canned tuna, and apple juice are all imported predominantly from China. Last year alone, the United States imported 4.1 billion pounds of food from China — beating out even the second country on the import list by a whopping amount.
And with these billions of pounds of food have come plenty of safety issues. Like melamine being deliberately put into pet food and baby formula. Or fox, rat and mink meat doctored with chemicals to dress it up as mutton. Or arsenic-laced apple juice and even toxic toothpaste.
And Smithfield hasn't been free of problems itself. Last year, the company quietly pulled its pigs off the controversial feed additive ractopamine — a toxic growth drug. Even China began to require third party verification that U.S. imports of pork were ractopamine free, and Russia blocked all imports of American pork until the issue was solved. This scandal probably opened the doors for Smithfield to be bought up by Shuanghui International in the first place.
So what does this mean for American consumers? Well, for one, it should highlight huge loopholes in food labeling. While country of origin stamps are common on food purchased at stores, the loopholes to that are so large Paula Dean could comfortably drive her truck through them. If mixed vegetables are packaged together, and the carrots came from one country and the corn from another — no country necessary. And while fish must also be labeled, if that fish goes into fish sticks or patties, the label is also unnecessary. Once food is processed in any way on U.S. soil, the original country of origin is — at least in the eyes of food labeling laws — of no concern.
With pork specifically, we may not have to worry for at least the near future. China is currently not allowed to import fresh pork to the United States because outbreaks of hoof and mouth disease are fairly common. Processed pork can be imported, but only if it meets standards set by the World Organization for Animal Health that requires the processed meats to be cooked at very high temperatures for a set amount of time. But, the point food activists are concerned about is not the pork from China Smithfield will or won’t be selling – it's about what this means for the U.S. market, and perhaps what we should be doing better.