ST. LOUIS — A coalition of farm and food safety groups wants federal regulators to quash the proposed sale of Smithfield Foods to a Chinese conglomerate in what would be the largest such takeover of a U.S. business.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that 17 groups sent a letter to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States asking it to oppose the pork processor's sale to Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd.
Coalition members, which include the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Food & Water Watch and the Nebraska Farmers Union, say the deal could weaken domestic food safety, cause economic damage in rural communities and harm national security.
"The White House should reject the sale of America's food supply," said Tim Gibbons, of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. "The Smithfield purchase turns over American farms to a consolidated, globalized meatpacking industry that leaves rural communities to clean up the waste while China gets the meat."
China is the U.S.'s third-largest pork export customer, buying more than 500,000 metric tons of pork a year. In 2012 the U.S. exported nearly a quarter of its pork, and about 12 percent went to China, where a growing middle class has increased demand for proteins.
Smithfield executives have said the deal is about increasing such exports, not paving the way for the domestic sale of Asian pork.
In late May, the company announced that Shuanghui would purchase Virginia-based Smithfield for $4.7 billion. Smithfield CEO Larry Pope testified before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee in early July in a bid to assuage similar concerns among federal lawmakers.
Committee chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called for more government oversight from additional agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture.
The scrutiny of the pending sale comes amid a number of recent food-related scares in China, including reports of adulterated and mislabeled meats. A Shuanghui subsidiary was recently accused of treating hogs with an illegal veterinary drug that's hazardous for humans.
"The deal has been promoted as a way to facilitate U.S. pork exports to China, but ultimately Shuanghui could export pork back to the United States," the groups' July 9 letter states. "The adoption of Smithfield hog genetics and processing technologies could allow Shuanghui to reverse the global flow of pork."
Processed pork products, including ham, bacon and sausage, are exempt from mandatory country-of-origin labeling requirements. According to the letter, American consumers could still see familiar brands but be unaware that they were imported from China.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon recently vetoed two bills that would have allowed 1 percent of Missouri farmland to be owned by foreign businesses. Missouri is the country's seventh-largest pork producing state, with about $790 million in gross pork production in 2011.
Language was inserted into the bills by the Missouri House agribusiness committee, which is chaired by state Rep. Casey Guernsey, a northern Missouri dairy and beef cattle farmer whose five-county district is home to Premium Standard Farms, a Smithfield subsidiary.