The Pig’s Out of the Poke in Smithfield

Posted June 12, 2013

Our salumeria is in Mechanicsville, Virginia.  It’s not a huge town, but not exactly sleepy either.  We’re minutes from both Downtown Richmond, Virginia, and pretty close to the airport, so we get our fair share of traffic and noise.  The only sounds we hear are the humming of refrigerators and meat grinders, but hopefully we’ve set the scene.  It’s a nice place to have set up shop, and a few minutes down the road will land you in acres of small family farms.

About an hour southeast of Olli Salumeria is a true sleepy southern town:  Smithfield, Virginia.  If you’ve not been watching the news lately, they’ve gotten kind of famous.  Smithfield is the home to Smithfield Ham, and the birthplace of traditional Virginia hams.  Not at all like the artisanal salami and prosciutto that we make, but there’s a market and a place for it.

Pigs arrived on our shores sometime in the mid 1500s, and the Tidewater region of Virginia was a perfect home for them.  The town of Smithfield was established in 1752, and Captain Mallory Todd opened a ham curing and shipping business in the area in 1767.  Cured hams from Smithfield became extremely desired, and folks all over the area started their own businesses.  In 1926, folks in Smithfield grew tired of the imposters, and the Virginia General Assembly passed a Statute stating, “Genuine Smithfield hams are hereby defined to be hams processed, treated, smoked, aged, cured by the long-cure, dry salt method of cure; and, aged for a minimum period of six months….to be done within the corporate limits of the town of Smithfield, Virginia.”

Pretty specific and all others were just a piece of cured pork.

In 1936, Joseph W. Luter and his son, Joseph Jr., founded the Smithfield Packing Company, and today they are one of America’s largest meat companies.  Or at least they were.

Last week, China-based Shaunghui offered $4.7 Billion for Smithfield.  While it still has to pass some regulatory hurdles, it’s still a lot of pork.  If all goes well, it would be the largest Chinese buy-out of an American company in history.  It seems that the Chinese are crazy about pork.

Does this spell bad news for Smithfield and American pork?  Well, yes and no.  Shaunghui made their purchase because they liked what they saw, and they’ve stated that they have no intention of changing the way Smithfield does business.  While the Chinese have not been notorious for their attention to detail when it comes to food safety, being on our shores insures a certain amount of regulation and security.  But this purchase also does a great deal to open a vast, new market for commercial pig farmers.  This is a whole other kettle of fish.

Large-scale commercial pig farms are not savory places.  This is why we buy from folks like duBreton Pork and Jude Becker at Becker Lane Organic.  Our suppliers are supremely committed to the welfare of the pig, with feed and lifestyle leading to a tastier product.  Several of them are certified organic, and as a whole they believe in natural pig foods, healthy animals and humane living conditions.  Large-scale factory farms?  Not so much.  They feed their pigs antibiotics and steroids and animal byproducts because their hogs are always sick and they want them to get up to slaughter weight as quickly as possible.  Many of their animals live their entire lives without seeing real sunlight.  The health and welfare of the pigs is somewhere way down on the list of important stuff.

Pigs will eat just about anything, but on a factory farm they eat a lot of corn and soy.  It’s cheap and fattens them quickly.  Our pigs eat pig food:  nuts, acorns, grains and grasses.  If a pig would go after it naturally, it’s added to the menu.  The increased demand for cheap pork will cause a increase in the demand for cheap corn and soy, which will put a strain on our farmlands and decrease the production of wholesome crops that we would perhaps like to enjoy.  Tomato or a hot dog – your choice.

By the way:  We’re in Hanover County, Virginia, and a Hanover Tomato is like nothing you’ve ever tasted.  Delicious.

In all fairness, as a country we’ve made quite a buck shipping stuff to China, and vice-versa.  China already imports tons of pork, and in the last decade that has significantly ramped up.  In 2012 they bought 1.4 million tons of it.  So this could be good for Smithfield, and America’s pig farmers.  This deal also has to clear the regulatory hurdles.

But don’t worry, we’ll stick with our trusted family farmers.

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