On 1 May it was announced that 37 sow farms in Missouri, US, owned by Smithfield Foods, are being closed. Smithfield is the world’s largest pork processor, which was purchased in 2013 by Shuanghui International, China’s largest pork producer.
These farm closures were reported to a local news outlet by an employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. This employee listed negative market conditions and sow herd health issues as reasons for the closures but did not elaborate further.
Smithfield reportedly has 132 company-owned farms and 109 contract farms in Missouri, along with a leased farm, 8 feed mills and a pork processing plant.
In July 2021, the company shut its founding slaughter plant in the city where it was founded over 85 years ago, in Smithfield, Virginia.
At the time, the purchase of Smithfield in 2013 was the largest acquisition of an American company by a Chinese company in history. It may yet be the largest. Before the deal took place, there were concerns that Shuanghui (now called WH Group) might use Smithfield as a channel to sell its products in the US. There were also food security concerns over the fact that a foreign company was about to control roughly a fifth of US pork production.
Others, including members of Congress, wondered why WG Group would pay about 30% more for Smithfield than its market value. This led some – both inside and outside the government – to express worry that the government of China was a silent partner in the deal.
Concerns over the Smithfield purchase have lingered. Right now, with relations between the US and China currently strained, foreign ownership of American ag businesses and farmland is under scrutiny from politicians.
Missouri and 26 other states, reports the Washington Post, are now considering proposals that would ban or restrict foreign acquisitions of farms. However, the newspaper also reports that “Smithfield executives are exasperated by suggestions that Chinese ownership of American land is a threat”.
One of these Smithfield leaders, Kraig Westerbeek, stated that “I don’t have anybody from China directing what I’m doing,” and “I don’t view this business as being owned by the Chinese government. I don’t even understand the conversation, quite frankly.”
In October 2022, Smithfield received a verdict relating to a highly-publicised trial stemming from an incident that occurred at one of its farms in Utah in the US in 2017. During that incident, 2 animal rights activists stole what they described as 2 sick piglets. They also released footage of inside the barns.
In October, the 2 defendants were acquitted by a jury of burglary and theft charges. Smithfield stated that “this verdict is very disappointing as it may encourage anyone opposed to raising animals for food to vandalise farms. Following this 2017 incident, we immediately launched an investigation and completed a third-party audit after learning of the alleged mistreatment of animals on a company-owned hog farm in Milford, Utah. The audit results showed no findings of animal mistreatment.”