The recently announced agreement to purchase the world’s largest pork producer, U.S.-based Smithfield Foods, by Shuanghui International, a giant Chinese meat processing company, has garnered significant attention from the agricultural industry and beyond. Concerns are being raised regarding potential impacts to the environment, food safety, and the welfare of animals and agricultural workers—on both sides of the sale.
China’s food industry has been plagued by scandals in recent years; Shuanghai itself was caught feeding livestock a chemical harmful to people back in 2011. In 2008, tainted milk formula sickened hundreds of thousands of Chinese babies and killed a half dozen. Earlier this year, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in rivers near Shanghai, and just last week, more than 100 Chinese workers died when a locked poultry slaughterhouse caught fire.
The buyout of Smithfield is expected to increase U.S. pork exports to China, currently the world’s largest consumer of pork products. Increased production under Smithfield’s intensive, highly integrated structure, would lead to increased manure production, and a potential increase in related air and water pollution in the U.S.
As to the welfare of pigs, the Smithfield sale has potential to be both advantageous and problematic. Exporting Smithfield’s production practices to China would likely lead to improvements in the care of pigs in that country during transport and at slaughter. The treatment of animals on the farm, however, is another story. Intensification and consolidation of pig farming in China will result in the replacement of thousands of small family farms with massive animal feeding operations, where pigs are crammed by the thousands into windowless sheds, fed antibiotics to stave off disease, and then mutilated with the clipping of their tails and teeth to allow such close confinement.
In the U.S., the sale raises questions about the future of Smithfield’s transition from the use of tiny metal crates for the housing of pregnant sows to the more humane method of group housing. It’s unknown whether Smithfield will honor its vow that all sows on its company-owned farms will be out of stalls by 2017.
The sale, which has yet to be approved by American regulators, appears to have already had an impact on one major trade issue between the U.S. and China. Just two weeks before the sale agreement, Smithfield announced that it would raise half of its pigs on feed that does not contain ractopamine, a drug that causes adverse physical and behavioral effects in pigs and has been banned in a number of countries, including China. It remains to be seen if only Chinese consumers will be receiving ractopamine-free pork.
Smithfield’s purchase by Shuanghui International will not be the first sale of a major U.S. meat company to foreign interests. Brazil-based JBS became the world’s largest beef company in 2007 with its acquisition of the U.S. firm Swift & Company, then the third largest U.S. beef and pork producer.
Animal agriculture is increasingly a global enterprise. Ultimately, attention must be directed to the development of strong international standards for environmental protection, food safety, worker safety, and animal welfare—and trade agreements that recognize these standards.
Dena Jones is farm animal program manager with the Animal Welfare Institute. Her July/August 2004 article for Orion, “Crimes Unseen,” told of the effort to make the grim work of America’s slaughterhouses more humane.