Many concerns as China eyes largest U.S. pork company

(CBS News) SMITHFIELD, Va. -- On Capitol Hill Wednesday, there was a battle over pork -- but it wasn't about wasteful spending by Congress. It was about plans by a Chinese pork conglomerate to buy Smithfield Foods for nearly $5 billion. It would be the biggest Chinese purchase of an American company ever.

A hog looks through the fence at Smithfield Food farm in Virginia.
A hog looks through the fence at Smithfield Food farm in Virginia. CBS News

Supporters say that it would increase U.S. exports to China. Critics call it a threat to America's food safety and security. Smithfield farmer Gene Groves is supportive of the deal.

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Twenty miles south of Smithfield, Va., Groves raises 5,000 hogs every year for Smithfield Foods. The contract for how he raises the animals is precise to the last detail. The size of the barn, the feed the hogs eat and when, and the biosafety rules limiting contact between hogs and humans are all mandated and controlled by the company.

Smithfield Foods farmer Gene Groves
Smithfield Foods CEO Gene Groves CBS News

"It's a big book of things we do and don't do on this farm," Groves said. "It's part of the Smithfield contract."

Smithfield's ability to mass produce hogs has made it the largest pork producer in America. But its high level of technology in genetics, production and food safety is why China's largest pork producer Shaunghui wants to buy the company.

China has major food safety problems, starting with pork. Last spring, thousands of dead pigs were simply dumped into the river that supplies Shanghai with drinking water. Two years ago a Shaunghui subsidiary was caught putting a banned chemical into pig feed to make the animals lean.

Dead pigs are collected by sanitation workers from Shanghai's main waterway, March 11, 2013. More than 2,800 dead pigs have been found floating in Shanghai's main waterway, the Chinese city's government said on March 11, 2013. PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Some in Congress, and many in the town of Smithfield, are asking if the Chinese are buying Smithfield to learn America's food safety secrets or to cut corners.

"With the scandals that have gone on in the meat industry in China, that comes to the forefront in a lot of people's minds," said Jim Abbicht, the owner of the Christmas Store in Smithfield.

A pork house in China.
A pork house in China. CBS News

Such a move could affect the safety of Smithfield meat, he said. "This company will now will be able to educate the Chinese on how to serve their own people."

Shaunghui has told investors it's not changing Smithfield's safety practices. Farmer Gene Groves said he believes that.

"If they were to turn that off, that would be a mistake, of course. And I don't see how they could," Groves said.

The Treasury Department is reviewing the Smithfield deal but can only block the sale for national security reasons typically related to computers or defense, not food. But with Smithfield selling food technology secrets China can use in competition against other American producers, a bipartisan group of senators wants food security elevated to the national security level.

However, it's probably too late to stop the Smithfield deal and it is likely to go through.

  • Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.