SMITHFIELD, Va. — The pig is many things in this riverside town in southeastern Virginia. Happy porcine images are everywhere: There’s a pig in a chef’s hat holding a beer outside a neighborhood grill. Down the road, a cartoon pig is serving pie and another is hawking children’s clothes. A blue-and-pink pig statue is painted with a platter of ham and biscuits.
In the birthplace of the Genuine Smithfield Ham, the pig is part plaything, part source of civic pride and, as of this week, a big, fat reminder of how global economic forces can encroach upon the smallest of communities.
The announcement that Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork producer, had agreed to sell itself to a Chinese meat conglomerate has left many here wondering how the $4.7 billion deal will affect their lives and their town’s most important symbol.
The company’s vast facility in the middle of town draws workers from communities across this part of the commonwealth and North Carolina, and locals say they have built their own businesses — and a wider tourist economy — on the back of the home town firm’s growth.
Residents and workers said they wonder whether the community will continue to benefit with owners an ocean away.
In a downtown boutique, standing amid purses, tchotchkes and platters marked “Made in China,” one of the town’s 8,000 residents, Michele Vandeveer, spoke of devouring Smithfield ham, prepared lovingly by an uncle, on Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter. “If you do it right, there’s nothing better on a biscuit,” she said, before emitting a rapturous “Aahhhh!” The new geopolitics of that deliciousness are throwing her.
“I’m not very happy about it. Nothing’s more American than ham,” Vandeveer said. “I just think the Chinese are getting their tentacles everywhere in America, from loans to companies. It just seems like a downward spiral to me.”
Just down the road, Harvey Saunders stood in his spot behind the counter, his perch for watching changes that have come to Smithfield since the 1950s. He rents saws and other equipment now, but he used to supply the Smithfield slaughterhouse and other businesses with sheet metal and heating oil. His secretary knew everyone’s name, telephone number and account number by heart.
Smithfield’s roads have clogged with newcomers, and taxes have gone up without services keeping pace, Saunders said. “It used to be a nice place to live. Now it’s overrun by people moving in from the city,” he said, adding that the new folks didn’t help his business much.
But he welcomes the changes that could come with the arrival of new Chinese owners of the town’s biggest enterprise. In addition to his other jobs, Saunders worked for years as a pilot, shuttling Smithfield Foods executives around the country as they made acquisitions of their own. He expects the company’s operations — and local footprint — will only grow if the purchase moves ahead.
“The Chinese didn’t get where they are from being dumb. And they’ve got to eat,” Saunders said. “The only thing going for this country now is a plentiful food supply. . . . Now we’ll be exporting more meat.”
Already Smithfield has 46,000 employees worldwide, with operations in 25 states and several countries. But nowhere is its presence more pronounced than in Virginia, where the company is one of the biggest employers in the commonwealth’s $20 billion food processing industry, according to a 2013 report by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
For the deal to move forward, Shuanghui International needs a regulatory go-ahead from Washington officials. A host of scandals has hit China’s poorly regulated food suppliers in recent years, and concerns have been raised about some of Shuanghui’s past practices. Chinese state media reported that pork from a Shuanghui subsidiary had been tainted by the chemical clenbuterol, which can make meat leaner but sickens humans. Shuanghui promised to destroy thousands of tons of its product to allay customer concerns.
At the Rushmere Food Mart just outside Smithfield, cook Teresa Agee serves ham slices and pork links to workers commuting to Smithfield’s meatpacking jobs, and she’s skeptical of Shuanghui. She’s a vegetarian, and sometimes tries to push the egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich as an alternative when people ask for more healthful options. The nursing student still has trouble seeing the trucks roll toward the slaughterhouse down the road. “They have their little inquisitive noses sticking out,” Agee said. “That’s probably the first time they’ve actually been anywhere. They probably think they’re going someplace fun.”
But she knows what people in these parts like to eat, and she gives it to them. “Smithfield is the town of pork,” Agee said.
That said, she remains worried that China’s sketchy food safety and animal welfare standards could flow into Shuanghui’s American operations.
“Who’s going to police them, not just here, but in all the plants they are taking over?” Agee said of the would-be Chinese owners.
Saunders thinks America’s better standards will actually flow the other direction.
“They’ve got meat inspectors up the yin yang in Smithfield,” Saunders said. “I’d think it would improve in China. I think it would have to.”
For the slaughterhouse employees who stream daily toward the Smithfield plant for the grinding job of turning pigs into products, the prospects of new ownership has raised hopes of new markets and improved livelihoods.
“I don’t know nothing about Chinese. I know I can’t speak their language. But I hope it will be better,” said Laurice Jones, 41, who has been at the plant for 23 years and is paid $12.72 an hour to work on the kill floor. “I want to talk to the Chinese about that,” she said of her sweaty, bloody working conditions.
Her request for new Chinese bosses willing to put down billions for American pigs: “More money.”