Breaking News
Investing Pro 0
Final hours: unlock premium data with Claim 60% OFF

At Smithfield Foods' slaughterhouse, China brings home U.S. bacon

Published Nov 05, 2019 04:22AM ET
Saved. See Saved Items.
This article has already been saved in your Saved Items
© Reuters. A truck arrives at Smithfield Foods' pork plant in Smithfield
Add to/Remove from Watchlist
Add to Watchlist
Add Position

Position added successfully to:

Please name your holdings portfolio
Add to/Remove from Watchlist
Add to Watchlist
Add Position

Position added successfully to:

Please name your holdings portfolio
Add to/Remove from Watchlist
Add to Watchlist
Add Position

Position added successfully to:

Please name your holdings portfolio

By Tom Polansek

SMITHFIELD, Virginia (Reuters) - Smithfield Foods' slaughterhouse in Virginia used to carve up pork for American sandwiches and holiday dinners. But workers now box up pig carcasses to ship to China, according to employees, local officials and industry sources.

The transformation at the Smithfield, Virginia, plant shows how the global meat industry is adapting to profit from African swine fever, a fatal pig disease that has killed millions of hogs in China and turned the world's top pork consumer into a major meat importer.

Bought by China's WH Group Ltd (HK:0288) six years ago for $4.7 billion, Smithfield Foods has retooled U.S. processing operations to direct meat to China, which produced half the world's pork before swine fever decimated the industry.

The world's biggest pork processor operates a white, box-shaped meat plant in Smithfield, Virginia, home to 8,000 as well as the company's headquarters and a wider tourist economy built on its famous hams, bacon and sausages.

Since late spring, pigs trucked to the plant have been slaughtered and sliced into thirds for shipment to China, where Chinese workers process the carcasses further, company employees and industry sources told Reuters.

"They got an order to fill: China," said one plant worker, who asked to remain anonymous.

Smithfield Foods declined to comment on the change or allow a reporter to visit the Virginia plant, which slaughters about 10,000 pigs a day.

The company previously said it was upgrading the facility, without giving details, and that U.S. business was a priority. Other Smithfield Foods plants in the United States have continued to slaughter pigs for the home market, industry sources said.

WH Group, known as Shuanghui International Holdings when it bought Smithfield Foods, did not respond to a request for comment.

However, Arnold Silver, Smithfield's director of raw materials procurement, said at a recent industry conference that sales to China could eventually create bacon and ham shortages for American consumers.

    The outbreak of African swine fever has killed up to half of China's hog herd since August 2018 and pushed prices so high that Chinese importers are willing to pay hefty tariffs that Beijing imposed on U.S. pork as part of the countries' bruising trade war.

U.S. pork producers say China's losses from the disease have created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for sales.

After shifting operations, Smithfield Foods can process pigs more quickly in Virginia because employees are doing less work on each carcass, according to the plant worker. The job is still difficult, though.

"They freeze it up. It's heavy," said the employee, who was wearing a brace to support his back and a sweatshirt to keep warm.


The United States exported 294.5 million kilograms of pork to China between January and August, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, more than in the whole of 2018.

Frozen carcasses accounted for about 20% of exports by weight from January to August, up from 0.3% during the same period in 2017, the data show.

Smithfield Foods was the top shipper this summer, sending at least 17.6 million kilograms of pork to China between June and September, according to Panjiva, a division of S&P Global (NYSE:SPGI) Market Intelligence. Kansas-based Seaboard Corp (A:SEB) sold at least 5.3 million, Panjiva said. The firm noted its data does not capture all shipments.

Seaboard did not respond to a request for comment.

"Down the road, if this continues and we ship a lot of product to China, certainly I think we could see shortages, particularly on hams and bellies," Smithfield's Silver told the conference.

Smithfield Foods renovated its Virginia plant to supply carcasses to China, according to a person with direct knowledge of operations who asked not to speak publicly about the changes.

"There were departments that were completely eliminated or erased or remodeled," the person said.

Tyson Foods Inc (N:TSN) and JBS USA [JBS.UL] are also maneuvering to increase sales by stopping the use of the growth drug ractopamine, which is banned by China.


China is importing U.S. hog carcasses because it needs the entire animal, rather than specific parts, market analysts said. China has excess capacity in its processing industry due to the disease outbreak and can cut up U.S. carcasses to meet domestic tastes more cheaply than buying already-butchered pork, they said.

China's tariffs on frozen carcasses are also 62%, compared with 72% for muscle cuts, said Erin Borror, economist for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, an industry group.

"They need to be able to run their plants and keep workers employed to the extent possible," she said.

Smithfield Foods said it is subject to the same Chinese trade tariffs as other U.S. pork producers, despite being owned by a China-based company.

The United States did not export any hog carcasses to China between January and May of this year but shipped 6 million kilograms in June, 28 million kilograms in July and 26 million kilograms in August, U.S. Census Bureau data show.

The start of shipments coincides with the conversion of Smithfield Foods' Virginia operations, traders said.

Increased exports of hog carcasses are so new that the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it plans to clarify its reporting requirements for shippers to make sure sales are being counted accurately. Some meat traders said weekly recorded sales have looked low.

Bob Brown, a longtime U.S. livestock market analyst, said tracking carcass sales to China should not be difficult because most are being done by Smithfield Foods from its Virginia facility.

"This is one plant, one company, one place," Brown said.


Smithfield Foods' latest turn toward China is an unusual shift for America's so-called ham capital, which boasts a museum featuring the world's oldest ham and streets dotted with brightly colored pig sculptures.

Mayor T. Carter Williams (NYSE:WMB) said he heard from company workers that the plant is shipping more pork to China.

"It doesn't bother us at all," Williams said. "The meat's in the store. All the local supply is still here."

Smithfield Foods workers are worried, though. Many were shuffled to different jobs in the slaughterhouse due to the overhaul, according to employees.

"They say they're doing everything short now and cutting out a lot of jobs," said James Moton, who cuts hair at Hamtown Barber & Styling in downtown Smithfield.

A former sanitation worker at the slaughterhouse, Moton learned of the operations changes from customers who still work at the facility. "They're hoping they still have a job."

At Smithfield Foods' slaughterhouse, China brings home U.S. bacon

Related Articles

Add a Comment

Comment Guidelines

We encourage you to use comments to engage with other users, share your perspective and ask questions of authors and each other. However, in order to maintain the high level of discourse we’ve all come to value and expect, please keep the following criteria in mind:  

  •            Enrich the conversation, don’t trash it.

  •           Stay focused and on track. Only post material that’s relevant to the topic being discussed. 

  •           Be respectful. Even negative opinions can be framed positively and diplomatically. Avoid profanity, slander or personal attacks directed at an author or another user. Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination will not be tolerated.

  • Use standard writing style. Include punctuation and upper and lower cases. Comments that are written in all caps and contain excessive use of symbols will be removed.
  • NOTE: Spam and/or promotional messages and comments containing links will be removed. Phone numbers, email addresses, links to personal or business websites, Skype/Telegram/WhatsApp etc. addresses (including links to groups) will also be removed; self-promotional material or business-related solicitations or PR (ie, contact me for signals/advice etc.), and/or any other comment that contains personal contact specifcs or advertising will be removed as well. In addition, any of the above-mentioned violations may result in suspension of your account.
  • Doxxing. We do not allow any sharing of private or personal contact or other information about any individual or organization. This will result in immediate suspension of the commentor and his or her account.
  • Don’t monopolize the conversation. We appreciate passion and conviction, but we also strongly believe in giving everyone a chance to air their point of view. Therefore, in addition to civil interaction, we expect commenters to offer their opinions succinctly and thoughtfully, but not so repeatedly that others are annoyed or offended. If we receive complaints about individuals who take over a thread or forum, we reserve the right to ban them from the site, without recourse.
  • Only English comments will be allowed.
  • Any comment you publish, together with your profile, will be public on and may be indexed and available through third party search engines, such as Google.

Perpetrators of spam or abuse will be deleted from the site and prohibited from future registration at’s discretion.

Write your thoughts here
Are you sure you want to delete this chart?
Post also to:
Replace the attached chart with a new chart ?
Your ability to comment is currently suspended due to negative user reports. Your status will be reviewed by our moderators.
Please wait a minute before you try to comment again.
Thanks for your comment. Please note that all comments are pending until approved by our moderators. It may therefore take some time before it appears on our website.
Are you sure you want to delete this chart?
Replace the attached chart with a new chart ?
Your ability to comment is currently suspended due to negative user reports. Your status will be reviewed by our moderators.
Please wait a minute before you try to comment again.
Add Chart to Comment
Confirm Block

Are you sure you want to block %USER_NAME%?

By doing so, you and %USER_NAME% will not be able to see any of each other's's posts.

%USER_NAME% was successfully added to your Block List

Since you’ve just unblocked this person, you must wait 48 hours before renewing the block.

Report this comment

I feel that this comment is:

Comment flagged

Thank You!

Your report has been sent to our moderators for review
Continue with Google
Sign up with Email