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U.S. food for sale

Friday, June 07, 2013 - Updated: 4:08 AM

The other night Fox News was on. This is not unusual. Fox or some other news program is usually on. This is why I hide in my chair behind a tall pile of books, with Peltor ear muffs protecting me from the deluge of drivel. The books screen out the flashing from the set. Plus I devour good books like potato chips, right along with bad books by the dozen. Then I pile them on the defense wall. On a good night I can tune out everybody from O'Reilly to Maddow and all the commercials, too.

To my astonishment, rather than the usual over-excited hoopla that passes for serious news, the reporters were covering the recent "merger" between Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui. The latter is a Chinese pork company based in Shanghai. In this deal, America's Smithfield, the world's largest pork company, essentially sold itself to Shuanghui for $7.1 billion, including debt. On its 460 farms Smithfield raises 15.8 million hogs a year, so we are talking about the big time here.

As I perambulated past the idiot box, Fox reporters were listing a plethora of horrible happenings in the Chinese food production system in recent years. You shoulda seen the sidebar. However, if you are a regular here you knew about many of them long ago.

No doubt you remember thousands upon thousands of hogs floating dead in a Chinese river, melamine in milk, not to mention the same fine dairy product fortified with leather powder to "beef it up." And the plethora of pet foods and treats that killed the dogs and cats that ate them, chickens that died of disease and then turned up in Japan nuggets, deadly infant formula, and a seemingly endless supply of other horror stories of contamination and adulteration. There is no shortage of reasons to worry about the potential for having to eat food that comes from China.

Now it seems that Fox, CBS, the Wall Street Journal, and several other mainstream news sources have suddenly noticed the potential for a major threat to our food safety.

All I can say is, it's about time.

It seems that the press has long ignored or glossed over the scandalous mess that is the Chinese food production system. Oh, you will see a headline here or there or a gruesome photo of something nasty from the other side of the world. However, there is always a sense of, "Isn't it awful, but it can't happen here," about reports on the topic.

However, when you add the free trade deal that is being brokered around the Pacific, transactions like this one, plus dozens of others selling key components of our food system to foreign buyers, there seems to be reason for anxiety on the home front.

Sen. Chuck Grassley expressed a number of such cares in his weekly newsletter: "My first concern is how the acquisition will affect the many family farmers and independent producers who are looking for a fair and competitive market for their pigs. Vertical integration occurs when a company like Smithfield owns the entire process from breeding the pigs, growing the pigs, processing the meat, and ultimately selling the company's products in your grocery store. This concentration leaves the independent producer with even fewer choices of who to buy from and sell to, and it hurts a farmer's ability to get a fair price. And, the vertical integration ultimately leads to consumers' having fewer choices and higher costs at their local supermarket."

He is also worried about potential national security concerns. Although Shuanghui is listed as a private company, the Chinese government is heavily involved in many similar operations. He also believes there is potential for the deal to be used as a vehicle to flood American markets with Chinese pork products.

Shuanghui was involved in the contamination of pork products with illegal clenbuterol as recently as 2011. According to reports, upward of 300 people were sickened in one such incident.

Are we fiddling with our food supply while Rome burns merrily in the background? Yeah, we probably are, and what is worse, we have been for quite a while.

Meatingplace listed several foreign companies which have purchased large chunks of our food chain, including Brazil's JBS, and Mexicab Marfrig Alimentos, which purchased Pennsyl-vania-based Keystone Foods, and Sigma Alimentos, also from Mexico, which bought Bar-S Foods.

Then Industrias Bachoco acquired OK Foods, Korea's Harim USA bought a Delaware-based poultry processor, Allen Family Foods, and the Ukraine's Omtron bought a large percentage of Townsends Inc., another poultry firm.

Foreign companies already own a huge percentage of the milk produced in the U.S. Our proteins are rapidly being gobbled up by folks who probably should be considered our competition. Randy Fobes, representative of the district that includes Smithfield, said in the Daily Press, "Any time we lose a company of that size with that share of our food market, it is enormously concerning to me."

Other entities are not worried, with some experts believing that the merger will be beneficial to U.S. pork producers by opening up markets overseas. People involved in brokering the deal claim that the result of it will be to send U.S. pork to China, rather than the other way around. (And if you believe that, check out Craigslist for a bridge from the boroughs that I have listed there.)

However, a Meatingplace editorial by Raoul Baxter pointed out that as a foot and mouth disease country, China would not be allowed to sell meat products here. He also asserted that China is looking to improve food safety in its obviously broken system by purchasing American know-how along with a bricks and mortar facility. Others believe that with so many hungry mouths to feed, China will be more interested in importing pork than in selling it overseas.

Whatever the actual result of this and all the other sales of U.S. food companies, farms and infrastructure, the trend is certainly worth attention. I'm glad the media is finally focusing on it.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs

at http://northviewdiary.blogspot.com/

     

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