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Food•6 min read
Rumors and conspiracy theories about Chinese ownership of a major U.S. pork producer abound, but concerns might be misplaced.
Words by Jennifer Mishler
Concern over what the growing amount of U.S. farmland owned by Chinese companies could mean for national security is rising. But what has garnered less attention is the fact that the vast majority — over 80 percent — of U.S. farmland owned by Chinese corporations or investors is owned by Smithfield Foods. Located in Smithfield, Virginia, Smithfield was purchased by the Hong Kong-based WH Group for $4.7 billion in 2013. At the time, it was dubbed “the biggest Chinese takeover” of a U.S. corporation, one of the U.S.’s biggest producers of industrial meat.
The WH Group is also the majority shareholder in Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development Co. — China’s top meat producer. So, why does Smithfield Foods — and who owns it — matter for the U.S. food system? Let’s take a look.
Smithfield is the largest U.S. pork producer, raising and slaughtering almost 18 million pigs for meat each year. In 2021, Smithfield’s revenue rose by 6.7 percent, reaching over $27 billion. As of that year, the company had around 530 Smithfield-owned farms and 2,100 contracted farms — a type of operation that often leaves farmers riddled with debt.
Smithfield Grain, the arm of the vertically-integrated company that is responsible for producing massive amounts of crops to feed its farmed pigs, called the WH Group’s purchase “a perfect collaboration between the Asian-based company with a hearty appetite for high quality U.S. produced pork and the world’s leading pork producer.”
“Our operations are still based in small communities around the U.S. with over 50,000 employees and 2,100 contract pork producers working together to produce good food in a responsible way,” according to Smithfield Grain.
As we’ll get into later, those impacted by polluted water in Missouri would beg to differ.
NPR reports that nearly 384,000 acres of farmland within the United States are now Chinese-owned, giving rise to concerns that some of that land may be owned by individuals tied to the Chinese government, and could have been purchased due to the land’s proximity to U.S. military bases. However, these concerns may be overblown. Only around one percent of U.S. farmland is foreign-owned at all, and Chinese-owned land accounts for a very small portion of those 40 million acres.
Canada, by far, is the country that owns the most U.S. land; 12.8 million acres. The second spot is held by the Netherlands, with 4.9 million acres. China ranks 18th on the list.
In Virginia, 96 percent of the state’s Chinese-owned land is owned by Murphy Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, according to the Smithfield Times (the news outlet’s name refers to the city of Smithfield; not the pork producer of the same name). Just 501 acres, or four percent, of Virginia’s Chinese-owned land is not owned by Smithfield.
The Smithfield Times notes, though, that Smithfield Foods “disputes the numbers” reported by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. According to Smithfield’s Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jim Monroe, the company accounts for only 4,000 acres in Virginia.
Monroe added that Smithfield Foods is “not owned or controlled by a foreign government,” and is not subject to Virginia’s legislation that allows local officials to remove a “foreign adversary,” whose land would then become a possession of the state.
Among the concerns sparked by the WH Group’s acquisition of Smithfield is a fear that the company is sending pigs to China for slaughtering and meatpacking, only for pork products to later be sent back to the United States.
In a 2020 fact-check piece, USA Today reported that this rumor was false, and Smithfield spokesperson Jenna Wollin denied the claim. According to Wollin, all of Smithfield’s U.S. products are produced within the country in accordance with USDA and FDA policies.
Beyond concerns over Smithfield’s Chinese ownership, the company is also facing other controversies within the United States.
In April, Smithfield agreed to pay $75 million to settle a class action lawsuit over pork price-fixing — allegations it has faced and paid for before. In 2021, there was a similar price-fixing settlement for $83 million, as the company was accused of conspiring to limit the supply of pork since 2009.
Last year, a report revealed Smithfield’s “chronic” pollution, tying 21 of the company’s Missouri farms to the spilling of over seven million gallons of waste over three decades. In May, it was reported that Smithfield is likely closing some of its sow farms in the state, a decision one anonymous employee said was attributed to “challenging hog market conditions.”
Sadly, with the chronic pollution animal agriculture is responsible for in general, and a history of price fixing among other meat producers, Smithfield is arguably no worse than other factory farm owners. Instead, it might just be that anti-China sentiment is causing consumers and media to pay more attention to what is already a corrupt and contaminating system.
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