China and Smithfield

Smithfield Country Ham

The big news in the food world last week was that Shuanghui International, a Chinese company, agreed to buy Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion. Many people think this deal, if approved, will have dire consequences, but no one seems clear on what those consequences might be.


There’s a patriotic aspect to this, of course: If you have an emotional identification with pork (and many people do), you might see Smithfield as an American icon. Founded in 1936 by the Luter family, the company began with a single meat-packing plant in Virginia. Those days are long gone. Smithfield is now the world’s largest producer and packager of hogs and pigs, processing 27 million animals each year and turning out over six billion pounds of pork.


There are 46,000 jobs at stake, but the Chinese say that no changes will be made and no employment is in jeopardy (we’ve heard that song before). Some people might be concerned about Chinese food safety standards, but Smithfield doesn’t have a spotless record in that department. They’ve come under fire for the use of ractopamine, an additive used to boost the weight of hogs and pigs without increasing feed, not to mention numerous environmental and animal welfare violations.


The real issue probably relates to the U.S. food supply in general, and in particular to the coming bacon shortage—something I reported on last year in this blog. There are 1.3 billion Chinese, compared to 316 million Americans, and they eat about half the pork in the world. Demand is not projected to decrease. The Chinese, in a word, are hungry. Who in the U.S. would be most affected by a shortfall in pork products? A number of fast food chains would see their profits plummet, and many people in the Southern part of the country would starve to death.


The biggest losers would likely be the leaders and followers of the current foodie culture, notably the chefs themselves. It has become trendy, almost expected, for chefs to spike their dishes with chorizo, tasso, speck and prosciutto, ostensibly to “flavor” them. This technique is vastly preferable to standing in front of a stove all day and painstakingly reducing a sauce for maximum taste impact. Such an old-fashioned practice would detract from the real mission of many U.S. chefs today—appearing on TV, doing photo shoots and charity events, signing cookbooks and opening dozens of cloned restaurants. Plus, it’s expensive—you have to pay others to do it, because the last place you’re likely to be found is in the kitchen. The Chinese are more of a threat than we think.


Mark spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to

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