Food Safety Concerns with Sale of Pork Producer to China

In a $4.7 billion deal that amounts to the largest takeover to date of an American company by a Chinese one, Smithfield Foods, one of the largest U.S. pork producers, agreed to sell to Shuanghui International, one of China’s largest meat processors. Smithfield officials stated that the intended consequence of the impending sale is to deliver more pork products to China. However, there are concerns that the reverse would happen —that Chinese pork and other meat products could be introduced into the U.S. food supply.

Statistically the world’s largest agricultural economy and one of the biggest exporters of agricultural products, last year alone China shipped over four billion pounds of food to the U.S. For instance, half of the apple juice, 80 percent of tilapia, and 10 percent of frozen spinach consumed in the U.S. originated in China.

The alarm regarding food safety and the expansion of China’s exports into the U.S. food supply is not entirely unfounded. Food safety issues have grown in recent years, as the Chinese government attempts to corral violations by its domestic manufacturers and exporters of food items.

In 2007, melamine was found in various brands of pet foods that sickened or killed cats and dogs. The FDA found contaminants in vegetable proteins imported into the United States from China and used as ingredients in pet food. A portion of the tainted pet food was used to produce farm animal feed and fish feed. The FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered that some animals that ate the tainted feed had been processed into human food. Although federal agencies determined that there was very low risk to human health from consuming food from animals that ate tainted feed, nonetheless all tainted pet food, animal and fish feed, and vegetable proteins were recalled and destroyed.

In 2008 in light of reports from China of infant formula contaminated with melamine, the FDA issued a Health Information Advisory stating that there was no known threat of contamination in infant formula manufactured by companies that have met the requirements to sell such products in the United States. However, no Chinese manufacturers of infant formula at the time had fulfilled the requirements to sell infant formula in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about 48 million people, or 1 in 6 Americans, get sick; 128,000 are hospitalized; and 3,000 die from food borne diseases. While it is unknown what percentage of foodborne illnesses can be attributed to imported food, concerns about increasing Chinese imports into the U.S. food supply have resulted in congressional hearings.

In May, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats met to discuss the quality of goods imported from China. The challenge is the ability of governments, and here in the U.S. of the FDA, to inspect and test imported food. Generally, imported foods sold in groceries and other food stores must be labeled with their country of origin. A substantial portion of imports end up in restaurant and food service meals, where consumers have no idea of their source, and federal regulations do not require disclosure.

Additionally, once imported foods are processed in any manner, the labeling requirements are no longer in effect. For instance, imported peas and carrots would have to be labeled with country of origin if sold separately. Once mixed together and sold in a single package, the country of origin requirements no longer apply. Food items that are processed into a different item, such as fish sticks versus fish fillets, do not need to bear a country of origin label.

Currently, China is not allowed to export fresh pork or beef to the United States because it still has outbreaks of hoof and mouth disease. Both parties involved in the deal note that the flow of products is to to China and not from China to the U.S. Whether this purchase could result in the introduction of meat products processed in China into the U.S. supply chain remains to be seen.