China Power

Food Safety an Issue as China Firm Buys US Pork Producer

The acquisition is alarming, given China’s food safety track record. But concerns may be misplaced.

Last week, the shareholders of Smithfield Foods, a Virginia-based pork producer, approved the company’s sale to China’s Shuanghui International for $4.7 billion. Shareholder support of this decision topped 96% and the landmark vote represents the largest Chinese purchase of an American firm to date. This would be fine if not for China's track record of colossally alarming food safety scandals, particularly considering that a subsidiary of Shuanghui International was found in possession of pigs that had been fed the poisonous additive clenbuterol in 2011. Should this concern consumers in the United States? After all, the Department of Agriculture reported that the U.S. imported 4.1 billion pounds of food products from China by the end of last year, including fish, produce and even artificial vanilla.

Fortunately, it is unlikely that Shuanghui International is about to flood U.S. markets with maggot-infested sausages. Rather, according to Minxin Pei, the company may be more interested in supplying the Chinese market with safe pork products. As Pei explained on CNN, demand for pork in China is six times higher than in the U.S. and America’s safe pig farms will help Shuanghui provide unlaced meat to Chinese consumers. So if Pei is right, rather than tainted bacon coming our way, it appears China will get some respite from a myriad of potential last meals.

Sadly, food safety is a daily concern for Chinese citizens. Chinese merchants are notorious for selling fake handbags and watches, but they also produce fake eggs, fake buns and even fake meat. Rumors of girls dropping dead after family dinners are common on the street and locals frequently warn foreigners of rat meat posing as lamb. Just this month, police in Xi’an seized 22 tons of fake beef treated with paraffin for appearance. One of the most nauseating food safety incidents came in 2011, when the Chinese government found 70 tons of “gutter oil” (used cooking oil scooped up from sewers and sold to restaurants) at The Jinan Green Bio Oil Company.

In 2008, approximately 300,000 Chinese babies fell ill after consuming baby formula contaminated with melamine. This industrial chemical was used by milk producers to artificially boost protein levels during quality tests. Six babies died from kidney damage. The distrust of Chinese-made formula has become so widespread in the wake of the incident that the Hong Kong government has been forced to implement limits and penalties against the scores of mainlanders that are flocking to the city to buy safe formula. To make matters worse, high levels of mercury and aflatoxin (a carcinogenic fungus) were found in Chinese milk products in 2011 and 2012.8 Just last month, the Food and Drug Administration of the southern province of Guangdong announced that eight out of 18 samples of rice tested from local restaurants contained high levels of cadmium, another carcinogen.

Also a common threat: fake alcohol. Responsible bar owners sometimes make it a habit to sample their shipments to ensure they are selling the real thing to their patrons. Some foreign-owned bars even have signs on their tables educating potentially unaware customers on the symptoms of methanol poisoning, a highly toxic form of alcohol which has been found in adulterated drinks. Even a small amount of methanol can cause blindness or death.

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In light of all these food problems and many more, it should come as no surprise that China is interested in the advanced production processes and high-quality meat that Smithfield can provide. Again, it is unlikely (one hopes) that any threatening amount of contaminated food will find its way to American tables, though some lawmakers have expressed concern that the takeover could in fact leave the US vulnerable to pork shortages Perhaps, but a scarcity of hot dogs is certainly preferable to the alternative.

Isaac Medina holds an MIR from Peking University. He has previously worked for The National Bureau of Asian Research and the American Foreign Policy Council.