Smithfield Foods denies House GOP letter’s Chinese ‘infiltration’ claim

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, March 20, 2024

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A Republican-led U.S. Senate bill to exempt interstate commerce from California’s anti-cage hog farming law has the support of Smithfield’s namesake anchor employer and world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods.

A companion bill in the House of Representatives, however, is drawing intra-party opposition from Republicans alleging Chinese Communist Party “infiltration” of the American pork industry through Smithfield, a claim the company has repeatedly denied since it was purchased in 2013 by Hong Kong-based WH Group.

In 2018, California voters approved Proposition 12, a referendum that outlawed the commercial sale of pork meat for human consumption from any breeding pig, or immediate offspring of a pig “confined at any time during the production cycle” in an enclosure deemed to constitute animal cruelty under Proposition 12’s stated minimum size requirements for hog pens.

When the U.S. Supreme Court declined in 2023 to hear a legal challenge brought by the National Pork Producers Council against Proposition 12, U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Ks., proposed what he and nine co-sponsoring Senate Republicans dubbed the Ending Agriculture Trade Suppression or EATS Act, which in Marshall’s words would “prevent states like California from regulating farmers and ranchers nationwide.”

Smithfield Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jim Monroe, in a statement to The Tidewater News, confirmed the company supports “a federal legislative solution to an emerging patchwork of state-by-state regulations” like Proposition 12, which Smithfield contends “provide no animal welfare benefits while making it increasingly difficult to keep food affordable for consumers.”

U.S. Reps. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Byron Donalds, R-Fla., Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., Nancy Mace, R-S.C., Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., and Bob Good, R-Va., in a March 8 letter urging the House Agriculture Committee to reject Iowa U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson’s House version of the EATS Act, describe Smithfield as “wholly owned by the CCP.”

The EATS Act will “hurt thousands of American farmers, and substantially benefit foreign-owned farms” by “allow(ing) companies not meeting any comparable humane treatment standard to undercut competitors,” the letter asserts.

Monroe called the claims “preposterous, inaccurate and politically driven.”

Smithfield, which remains headquartered in its namesake town despite its foreign parent company, has already “established supply agreements for Prop 12-compliant pork,” Monroe said, and “regularly engage(s) with customers to determine their interest in Smithfield expanding its supply of compliant product.”

According to Monroe, the company completed a 10-year, $360 million investment in 2017 to convert all company-owned sow farms to group housing. 

Sows stay in individual stalls for 35 to 42 days after they are bred to allow for individual care and to minimize fighting between animals during this early, high-risk stage of the pregnancy, Monroe said. Once confirmed pregnant, sows are moved to a group pen where they stay for 68 to 75 days. When the sows are ready to give birth, they move from group pens to farrowing stalls, which Monroe said are instrumental in reducing piglet mortality.

Smithfield, despite its efforts to comply with California’s requirements, contends Proposition 12 was “not informed by science or those who know best how to care for pigs: hog farmers.” California “has very little in-state pork production,” Monroe said.

As its basis for claiming Smithfield to be under Chinese governmental influence influence, the House Agriculture Committee letter cites a $4 billion loan made by the state-owned Bank of China in 2013 to WH Group, then known as Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., to facilitate the nearly $5 billion purchase and assumption of Smithfield’s then-$2.4 billion in debt. According to Reuters, however, the loan was to be repaid in full within five years. New York-based Morgan Stanley facilitated another roughly $3 billion in financing.

Monroe said Smithfield employs roughly 35,000 people across the United States and contracts with more than 2,100 American farmers. WH Group, he said, is publicly traded with investors from around the world, including in the United States.

Smithfield maintains WH Group is not a Chinese state-owned enterprise and does not undertake any commercial activities on behalf of the Chinese government.

“Since the WH Group acquisition we have grown our annual sales from $13 billion to more than $19 billion, increased our production and added thousands of jobs in the U.S.,” Monroe said.

This isn’t the first time Smithfield’s ties to China have come under legislative scrutiny. 

When Smithfield announced its 2013 merger with Shuanghui, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held a hearing that year for the stated purpose of examining foreign purchases of American food companies. More recently, Virginia’s General Assembly enacted a new state law in 2023 barring “foreign adversaries” from owning Virginia farmland.

Monroe, in a statement to The Tidewater News last year, contended Smithfield’s roughly 3,900 acres of Virginia farmland are “not impacted because we are not owned or controlled by a foreign government” and disputed a state report from July that listed Smithfield subsidiaries as the owner of 96% of Virginia’s 13,890 acres of identified Chinese-held farmland.