Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Smithfield Sale to Chinese Could Herald Downgrade in US Pork Quality: Disgusting Pork in China

The cured Smithfield ham served last Easter at my father-in-law's home was simply divine: lightly salty, subtly sweet, meaty with a crackling, fatty edge.  

A high-quality, superbly prepared ham from a 77-year-old U.S. company with a remarkable food-safety record. We eat ham rarely, so indulged in spending extra money to buy the best for our family feast.  

Imagine my chagrin at the news that Smithfield Foods, a fine American culinary tradition, has agreed to sell itself, 100%, to Chinese food conglomerate Shuanghui International known to contaminate pork with a veterinary med banned for use in animals intended for human consumption.  (This deal is subject to Congressional approval.)

Of course, like Shuanghui, U.S. meat producers are no strangers to adulterating beef, pork, and poultry with all sorts of drugs, from antibiotics to ractopamine, a growth-hormone drug banned in 100 countries, including Russia, China and most of Europe. ( Read details at U.S. Pork, Beef Laced with Drug Banned in Europe, China, Russia.)  Interestingly, Smithfield reportedly ended its use of ractopamine only in anticipation of this sale. 

The Chinese meat industry, though, is reputed for its disgustingly poor record of food safety and counterfeit products, including:

  • "The latest episode involved fox, rat and mink meat that was doctored with gelatin, pigment and nitrates and sold as mutton. ( New York Times, May 29, 2013)
  • "Allegations of maggots, excessive bacteria and illegal additives have plagued China's biggest meat products company, Shuanghui International, since at least 2011..."  (CNN, May 31, 2013)
  • In the first four months of 2013, "... authorities have seized 20,000 tonnes of illegal products and solved 382 cases of meat-related crime – primarily the sale of toxic, diseased and counterfeit meat."  (The Guardian, May 3, 2013)
Chinese pork producers lay claim, though, to the most egregious (and grotesquely repellent) recent food safety record among Chinese meat industries.  Producers are straining to meet  growing Chinese demand for pork, 50 tons yearly, nearly half of world pork consumption. 

In March of this year, 16,000 rotting pig carcasses were dredged from the Huangpu River, a river that supplies tap water to parts of Shanghai.  This morass of dead pigs dumped by unknown perpetrators into public waters was symptomatic of various factors and market forces in China:
  • Widespread disease-ridden pig livestock
  • "While farmers are required by law to send animals that die of disease or natural causes to processing pits, black market dealers intercept the chain, butchering the hogs to sell as pork." (The Guardian, March 29, 2013)
  • The thriving black market in sub-standard pork causes diseased animals to be kept alive longer, and provides incentives to producers to not cure disease-causing conditions
  • Chinese government crackdown on black market dealers of contaminated and diseased pork meat, forcing the dumping of 16,000 dead pigs. . (Last fall, China courts sentenced three black-market butchers to life in prison.)
Yes, that Chinese pork industry is buying Smithfield Foods, a top U.S. producer of high-quality pork and pork products, albeit a company with mediorcre-to-lousy records on environmental, labor, and humane animal treatment practices.  

But a solid American company with $12 billion in annual sales, 46,000 employees, facilities in 26 states, and the world's largest meat-processing plant. And a sought-after animal gene technology, developed by Smithfield, that produces leaner meat. Gone. 

Both Schuanghui and Smithfield officials insist that the sole purpose of this sale is to increase imports of quality U.S. pork and pork products to China.  But that was obviously achievable without U.S. owners ceding control of the company... 

Legitimate American fears of this transaction are many:
  • Importation of low-grade Chinese pork into U.S. markets
  • Implementation of lower-quality Chinese pork producing practices in U.S. plants and farms
  • Deterioration of Smithfield quality standards, as Chinese owners cut corners and crank-up volume to meet Chinese pork demands
  • New scarcity of pork in the U.S., leading to price increases
In other words, the sale of Smithfield to Schuanghui, the largest Chinese purchase ever of any American company, could likely result in lower-quality, higher prices and less availability of pork and pork products for American consumers.  

My first questions to Congress, who must grant final approval to the deal, are this:  

What new inspection and oversight processes will be put in place to protect Americans from horrendous Chinese-style pork contamination and counterfeiting? This is a unique, and uniquely large, transaction that warrants new safeguards. 

The USDA quietly eliminated 60% of foreign meat inspections from 2009 to 2012. Foreign meat inspections were already at dangerous low. Will the USDA reinstate foreign meat inspections, at least to prior levels?  (Read more at  How to Avoid Eating Horse Meat, Other Mystery Meats)

Why? How does this benefit the United States? How does this benefit the U.S. food supply and industry?  How does this benefit Americans? 

One thing you can bank on: we won't be serving Smithfield ham at our next family Easter feast. I care too much about my family's health. 

And frankly, I care too much about supporting American culinary craftsmanship and good standards. We will be serving U.S. grown meat, if at all possible, to celebrate holiday traditions in our homes. 

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