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Why the Fuss Over China?

Last week, some people questioned our opposition to China’s largest meat company purchasing Smithfield, suggesting that it could be construed as xenophobia. But prejudice against a particular country has nothing to do with our concern. The globalized food system poses real food safety risks and free trade deals with global partners encourage a race-to-the bottom in food safety standards, leaving U.S. consumers at the mercy of inadequate foreign food safety systems like China’s.

We should all be leery of deals like this that further consolidate our food system; especially when they involve companies with a history of food safety problems and countries with abysmal track records for food and worker safety. The horrendous Chinese poultry plant fire currently making headlines provides another powerful example of how the factory farm model endangers lives.

As I explain in this 2011 blog when we released our report, A Decade of Dangerous Food Imports from China, putting profits above people is a cross-cultural problem. Besides, many of the companies and investors profiting from Chinese exports are U.S. companies or investors (Goldman Sachs own part of Shuanghui International).

Anyone who’s paying attention knows that risky food from China has become all too common. Last month, Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats to discuss China as the leading producer of many foods Americans eat: apples, tomatoes, peaches, potatoes, garlic, seafood, processed food and food ingredients like xylitol and vitamin C.

As I explain on New York Times’ Room For Debate last night, the purchase of Smithfield isn’t just about exporting pork – it’s indicative of the American government’s fervor for exporting our consolidated, industrialized food system:

Shuanghui International became China’s monolithic meat company by adopting the U.S. factory farm model pioneered by companies like Smithfield. The merger is likely to increase the size, intensity and pollution of hog production in China. Furthermore, Smithfield’s anticipated increased exports to China would effectively convert U.S. factory farms into export platforms; Smithfield would ship out the pork, and we’d keep the hog manure.

In addition to the environmental consequences of the deal, it’s bad for consumers. Transnational deals in the food industry usually add to American imports, and a rising flood of imported food swamps U.S. import inspectors. In the long term, Shuanghui may offshore hog operations to China, and the U.S. could be importing pork. In 2011, Shuanghui recalled thousands of tons of meat after reports that it was laced with the banned veterinary drug clenbuterol, which is linked to serious human health risks.

Deals like this serve no one but the executives and bankers who stand to profit; everyone else is left with the manure.

(Read my full comment and the other experts’ perspectives here.)

Another debater, Thea Lee is the deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO, brought up another excellent point:

If Chinese consumers want to consume American pork, they can presumably purchase it on the open market. Our farmers have been trying to get their pork into the Chinese market on a sustained basis for many years. The decision instead to purchase a major producer indicates that there are other motives. As we evaluate this and other similar investments, we had better have a good sense of how those other motives will impact good jobs, food safety and regulatory balance in this country. Unfortunately, under current law, even if we determine that this or similar investments would have a negative impact on the U.S. economy – or any subset of workers – there is very little we can do to stop it.

We’re not criticizing the deal simply because Shuanghui is a foreign company. Food & Water Watch has criticized Australia’s and Canada’s food safety issues plenty. And if other country exporting food to the U.S. had the same food safety problems that China has, we would be equally concerned. The bottom line is further consolidation of our food system is bad for consumers and farmers. When a handful of companies—whether it’s Shuanghui or Tyson—control the food we eat, Wall Street and high-paid food industry executives win. Consumers, farmers and the environment all lose.

Wenonah Hauter is the Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. She has worked extensively on food, water, energy and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Her book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America examines the corporate consolidation and control over our food system and what it means for farmers and consumers.

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