NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

September 17, 2013

What industry could we buy from China?

As I See It
Robert Campbell

---- — The title is an engaging one! Other than freedom for their masses, which obviously is not for sale, they don’t seem to have anything we want bad enough to pay good money for except miscellaneous food products.

Are you aware or do you care, that since May 2103, the largest purchase of an American company by China has been on hold? Shaunghui, a $7 billion pork processor, is seeking to buy Smithfield Foods, our nation’s largest pork processor, for $4.7 billion. Now folks, this isn’t just pork-barrel politics; a government project yielding benefits such as patronage positions, increased employment or public spending to a political district and its political representative. No siree!!! This is down and dirty money on the barrel for a valued part of our American economy. So, what’s the holdup (bad choice of words here)? Demand for increased protein in the Chinese diet has strained food production as their economy is booming, a major reason for the selection. Smithfield, incidentally, is one of five top U.S. companies under acquisition by China for a total of $14.5 billion.

The acquisition of Smithfield has been subject to a national security review for months by the Committee on Foreign Investment. There are a number of issues concerning our government about the very lucrative offer. Does Smithfield have government contracts to supply our military or other security agencies, do they have special technologies like farm-rearing techniques that might be transferred to China and, finally, might it place Shaunghui in a position to disrupt the U.S. food supply or at least the supply of pork? Good questions deserve good answers, but the Chinese have not often replied in a timely manner. Shaunghui was hit by a food safety scandal in 2011 involving the illegal use of the veterinary additive, clenbuterol, which is believed to produce leaner meat. The company apologized. (They are good at that.) Neither Shaunghui nor the Chinese government has explained why 15,000 pig carcasses floated down a river in Shanghai several months ago.

There has been an ongoing litany of attempts to evade safety. In the early days of the 21st century, a contaminated blood-thinning drug was linked to 81 deaths in the U.S. Pet foods, with melamine, killed or sickened thousands and counterfeit test strips to monitor blood sugar levels posed a risk of diabetes for many. In 2009, 100 people in Panama died from brushing their teeth from a diethlyene glygol-contaminated toothpaste. Again in 2009, thousands of wallboard sheets imported into Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana to bolster rebuilding due to hurricane damage emitted noxious sulfur and methane odors and had to be replaced at a cost of millions of dollars. Mistrust of domestic brands of milk powder in China has resulted in a global search for infant formula the past five years leading to shortages from Europe to Australia. Affluent Chinese traveling to neighboring countries are being limited to two cans upon returning to keep their babies alive, according to new laws. Unfortunately, in early August, China banned milk powder imported from New Zealand and Australia due to contamination, thus creating increased shortages.

We are importing $4.1 billion pounds of food products from China: tilapia (80 percent of consumption), artificial vanilla, canned tuna, mandarin oranges, fresh mushrooms, apple juice (50 percent of consumption) and frozen spinach. Fortunately, China is not allowed to export fresh pork or beef to the U.S. because it still has outbreaks of hoof and mouth disease. On Aug. 30, our Department of Agriculture approved four processing plants in China to begin shipping a limited amount of poultry. The birds are to be raised in the U.S. and Canada, but predictions are that the poultry will be bred eventually in China, which does not have the best track record for food safety. Chinese facilities will cook the birds, but no USDA inspectors will be present in the plants. Because the poultry will be processed, it will not require country-of-origin labeling. Now, to add to our food woes, we will have to be watchful for canned chicken soup and nuggets that may contain salmonella.

China cages their chicken over ponds (20,000 can be caged in one acre) and chicken feces feeds their farm-raised shrimp. The U.S. Department of Agriculture warns that up to 10 percent of shrimp imported from China contains salmonella. I do believe we are giving away the store as well as our intestinal tracks. Once China gets hold of the product, it might undergo their own perverted version of safety in handling and packaging.

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Robert D. Campbell, an essayist who lives in Newburyport, believes that a sense of humor is essential.