Town that pork built digests Smithfield sale

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 state and from North Carolina, and locals say they have built their own businesses — and a wider tourist economy — on the back of the hometown firm’s growth.

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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. 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.’’

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 a chemical that can make meat leaner but is poisonous to humans.

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