Scroll past C-SPAN at the right time, and you may hear legislators arguing over what sounds like a lunch order: "This has too much pork!" one congressman will sweatily argue, only to be shouted down, "That's not pork at all!" The whole thing can get confusing until you understand they're not talking about our actual cute squiggly-tailed friends, but instead of "pork barrel legislation," a term used to describe the appropriation of federal money to fund extremely localized projects. (The best example of this is probably Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens' plan to build the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere," which would connect an airport to an island inhabited by 50 people. The problem? It cost $398 million federal tax dollars.) But if you turn on the news today and see people in suits ranting in a legal setting about pork, that may not be the sort of thing they're talking about.
Pork, these days, may just mean ... pork. As in, pigs. As in, creatures that oink. And the newfound legislative interest in "the other white meat" is due to worries stemming from China buying a whole lot of U.S. pork.
A few weeks ago, Shuanghui International, one of the largest meat processors in China, agreed to purchase Smithfield Foods, one of the largest pork producers in the U.S. The price tag on the deal, $4.7 billion, makes this "the largest takeover to date of an American company by a Chinese one." Or it would be, at least, if the purchase is allowed to go through. See, the whole thing's being put on hold because of substantial worries about the implications of such a sale.
Let's go back to the 1970s for a moment. Back then, Americans were getting nervous after Japanese-based investment companies started buying up huge swaths of U.S. real estate. To thwart the possibility of a slow, financially-based takeover, laws were implemented that wouldn't allow foreign businesses and governments to control U.S. land. This was then extended to include the agricultural sides of things, like livestock and crop production. And seeing as this purchase falls in that realm, the deal has to go through some massive debating before signatures are allowed on the various dotted lines.
How frightening the prospect of a Chinese company controlling an American producer of pork is depends on what you believe the future landscape of pork production will look like following such a deal. According to everyone directly involved, Shuanghui made the deal for two simple reasons: (1) To gain "U.S. know-how" in order to help bring the high survivability rate and disease resistance that are currently in American pigs over to China; and (2) because the country just needs all the pork it can get:
That consumption is growing as Chinese families gain more expendable income and spend it on meat products that were once out of reach. Chinese now eat about 70 million tons of meat annually, more than double the total Americans eat.
[ed. note: of course, the Chinese population is 1.344 billion to our 314 million.]
What has people worried about the sale, though, is a whole lot of uncertainties. On the local level, small farmers oppose the deal because of the general concerns that come with any new corporation coming to town: The possibility of the mom-and-pops being pushed out by big money. But on a country-wide level, there's an actual concern over national security. Think about it: A Chinese-based company would suddenly control a large portion of the pork supply that was once destined for American bellies:
"What I think is more concerning is if China owns Smithfield, who knows if that pork will stay in this country if the food supply gets tight?" Mr. Keppy said. "In that case, a lot of pork will head for China instead of feeding U.S. mouths."
Perhaps a more pressing concern from the proposed deal is the fact that the country of China does not have the same kinds of health regulations as found here in the U.S. And while both companies involved state that the pork produced there will be consumed by Chinese, not American, people, that may change at some point down the road. And that's where things get scary:
"We are importing more and more food from China at the same time we are hearing more and more about food scandals involving Chinese companies," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch who testified in Congress at a hearing on Chinese food imports. Food safety problems, like melamine deliberately put into pet foods and baby formula as well as unsafe levels of cadmium in rice, have plagued China.
Go ahead and do a Google search for "pigs dead China river" to see why we may be best to avoid Chinese-produced pork.
These are all factors that will need to be considered by the various legislators and delegates before this sale's allowed to go through. But while we're still far away from the finish line, not a single prognosticator -- or, "porknosticator," if you'd like -- believes the deal will be halted. Meaning, this is probably just a matter of time before China is in control of our pork.