Sumptuous Sunday dinners — meaning lunches — are a legend in Southern culture. Moms who could ready themselves, husbands and a household of children — eight in our family — for Sunday school and church, plus prepare a table full of Southern fare to be eaten right after church, were multitasking before the word was invented.
As often as not at our house, especially at holidays, there was a moist baked ham, butter peas, squash casserole, sweet potato soufflé or potato salad, a pickle plate, sliced tomatoes in season, rolls, banana pudding for dessert, and always gallons of sweet tea.
My 95-year-old mother still hosts Sunday dinner, but there’s a new rule today: no more Smithfield ham in her house, including the company’s other pork products, some sold under the names Gwaltney, Farmland, Armour and Eckrich. That’s because the Virginia-based company, founded in 1936, has a deal to be acquired by China’s largest meat processor, Shuanghi International Holdings, for close to $5 billion.
Smithfield ham holds iconic status in Southern food lexicology. To think of it now with Chinese owners is raising eyebrows, and not for any ethnic or prejudicial reasons. It would be the largest takeover of a U.S. company by a Chinese company to date.
Smithfield president Larry Pope sees no problems with approval and promises "no changes in how we do business operationally in the U.S. and throughout the world." But, said U.S. News and World Report on May 29, citing Reuters, "a recent series of food safety scandals in China could sour public opinion of the takeover…"
You’d have to have lived under a rock in recent years to have missed coverage of chronic food safety issues in China. Remember when the chemical melamine turned up in baby food and pet food made in China by none other than Shuanghi International, the proposed buyer for Smithfield Ham?
Then Chinese rice was found to have unsafe levels of cadmium. And according to The New York Times, the latest scandal linked to Chinese food supply "involved fox, rat and mink meat that was doctored with gelatin, pigment and nitrates and sold as mutton."
The acquisition faces scrutiny by the Justice Department, the Agriculture Department and the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment before it can go through. The committee will decide if the deal compromises national security. For example, asked The New York Times, "do Smithfield customer rolls reveal the locations of secure military installations?"
I asked Southern cook and author Nathalie Dupree about the Smithfield deal.
She said in an email, "I am all for them doing what they feel is their obligation to their stockholders. That said, I think the U.S. needs to be thinking about where our food comes from and who supplies it. Who do we want controlling access to our food, from Smithfield to Monsanto, if the business is owned by another country?"
Dupree’s co-author of "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking," Cynthia Graubart, said in an email, "Numerous concerns regarding safe food production in China will ultimately test consumer confidence and may erode the Smithfield brand. Financially, it’s a win for the shareholders, but not for the consumer."
At the end of 2012, per The New York Times on May 29, the U.S. imported more than 4 billion pounds of food products from China. A 2009 study by the Ag Department called imports from China "problematic."
Foods imported from China include "lots of tilapia," artificial vanilla, canned tuna, mandarin oranges, fresh mushrooms and apple juice — at least 50 percent of all apple juice, 80 percent of tilapia and 10 percent of frozen spinach. We also get from China the candy sweetener xylitol, artificial vanilla, soy sauce and folic acid.
The Times continued: Imported foods sold in food stores must be labeled by country of origin, but many of the imports end up in restaurant and food service meals, "where consumers have no idea of their source. Additionally, once imported foods are processed in any way, such labeling is no longer required under government regulations… For example, filets must be labeled, but not fish sticks or crab patties."
Luckily, China is not allowed to export fresh pork or beef to the U.S. That’s because of the presence of hoof-and-mouth disease there.
The Smithfield deal is important to the Chinese, to fill the growing demand for imported meat among Chinese consumers. The acquisition is being presented as a one-way street, with pork from U.S. farms and processors ending up on Chinese tables.
However, American consumers and cooks can’t help but be wary that Chinese food safety issues may show up on our tables.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.