Smithfield sale to China casts a new light on your kid’s ham sandwich

A Chinese pork producer is looking to buy Smithfield Foods, one of the largest producers of pork products in the US. Should the sale cause parents concern about China's food safety issues?

Amanda Lucier/The Virginia-Pilot, AP
Hams and other memorabilia is displayed at a restaurant in Smithfield, Va., on May 29. Smithfield Foods has agreed to be bought by Shuanghui International Holdings for about $4.72 billion. Residents in this southeastern Virginia town have mixed reactions to the idea

Imagine a company from China, where food safety is a serious concern, were about to consume Pepsi Co., Dole, General Mills, Nestlé, Kraft or Oscar Mayer food producers. When the news broke here in Virginia that pork producer Smithfield Foods is just a hog’s breath away from being sold to China’s Shuanghui International, moms who fret over food safety standards as they pack ham sandwiches into lunch boxes, serve BLTs and pork roasts, like me, became concerned over the future of those choices. 

Keira Lombardo, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications at Smithfield Foods, Inc., confirmed in an interview that the potential sale would also include Smithfield brands: Eckrich, Farmland, Armour, Cook’s, Gwaltney, John Morrell, Kretschmar, Curley’s, Carando, Margherita, Healthy Ones.

So the sale includes Armour hot dogs, “the dogs kids love to bite”? That definitely makes this sale a parenting concern at our house. 

While the vast majority of food products that come from China are perfectly safe, pork specifically has been a health issue in China, making it vital for parents to keep a close watch on where their food comes from and who they are trusting with it’s continued safe production. 

Virginia Del. Bob Marshall, a Republican, agrees with that thought and criticized the proposed merger in a 13-paragraph letter sent May 31 to Smithfield President and CEO C. Larry Pope, according to The Virginian-Pilot

Marshall contends that the idea of selling this major food producer to China “has not been received well by my constituents, nor in my own family,” he wrote. “While Shuanghui may purchase your physical plant and property, Smithfield’s former reputation built up from 1936 will not transfer with the sale. Inevitably, the Smithfield ‘brand’ will suffer, and regrettably, so will many Virginians.” 

The delegate is the first Virginia politician to publicly skewer the proposed merger and he points to the discovery of a banned additive, clenbuterol, in pigs raised at a Shuanghui subsidiary.

“China’s widespread food safety problems are known to American consumers and will engulf Smithfield Foods products regardless of the names under which they are sold,” Marshall also wrote, according to The Pilot. 

In 2011, an NBC news article  said more than 2,000 athletes from at least 181 countries competing in the 14th FINA World Aquatics Championships, hosted that year by China, refused to eat the country’s beef or pork in order not to run afoul of the anti-doping rules. Good on them, because a World Anti-Doping Agency report from that time, cited in the NBC article, discovered 22 of 28 travelers returning from China tested positive for clenbuterol. 

The NBC reporter's conclusion: “The hard evidence from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s report is a damning indictment of Chinese food standards at a time when the government has been dealing with a rash of food safety issues all over the country.”

The Livestrong website gives a long list of dangerous side effects the drug, used in veterinary medicine as an antihistamine, can have when humans ingest it. 

As a parent, I want to know how this kind of food-related, accidental and unwanted drug ingestion can occur. 

Still, I wasn’t too worried because I know there’s a pending federal review of the merger’s implications for national security, according to Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys Inc., a brand and marketing consulting company based in New York. 

However, I then read further in the Virginian-Pilot story and learned that most Americans are considered unlikely to share my concerns and Marshall’s. 

“To the consumer, it doesn’t matter,” Kenneth Bernhardt, a marketing professor who specializes in consumer behavior at Georgia State University, told the Pilot. “The key is not the ownership but the brand, and does the product deliver on the brand promise.” 

The chairman of Shuanghui International Holdings, who last week won Smithfield’s acceptance for what would be the largest Chinese acquisition of a US company, said he wants to tap foreign expertise and technology to help reshape food safety and production at home.   

“The question of food safety, whether it’s to American consumers or Chinese consumers, is a big deal,” Wan said, according to The Pilot. “Our nation has a tighter and tighter grip over food safety.”

Europe and America have excellent skills and equipment,” Wan said in the article. “If we go and purchase businesses from America and Europe, develop China’s meat industry, we will raise the level and standard of our food safety.”

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