China‘s Shuanghui International has made a $4.7bn bid to takeover Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, in what would be the biggest takeover of a US company by a Chinese firm to date – if it passes regulatory hurdles.
The deal is likely to run into heavy opposition in Washington, where a series of Chinese takeovers have been blocked by politicians and regulators. Shuanghui, also known as Shineway, is China’s largest pork producer and is part owned by an investment firm run by Goldman Sachs.
A takeover would give Smithfield entry into China, one of the biggest and fastest growing markets for pork. “This is a great transaction for all Smithfield stakeholders, as well as for American farmers and US agriculture,” said Larry Pope, president and chief executive officer of Smithfield. “It will be business as usual – only better.”
Shuanghui chairman Wan Long called the deal an “historic opportunity”. Wan is a high-profile business leader in China, where he is known as the country’s “No 1 butcher” because his company slaughters more than 15m pigs a year.
In March, local media reported that Wan told the National People’s Congress that he planned to make Shuanghui a major multinational company and one of the world’s largest meat processors.
“The acquisition provides Smithfield the opportunity to expand its offering of products to China through Shuanghui’s distribution network. Shuanghui will gain access to high-quality, competitively priced and safe US products, as well as Smithfield’s best practices and operational expertise,” he said.
The acquisition is subject to regulatory approval by the committee on foreign investments in the United States. Several large takeovers by Chinese companies have been thwarted in the recent past. The most high-profile failure came in 2005 when China’s Cnooc bid $18.5bn for US oil firm Unoca, triggering a massive political backlash that ended with the House of Representatives issuing a resolution that the deal “would threaten to impair the national security of the United States”. The bid was withdrawn.
In 2008, Huawei Technologies backed out of a deal to acquire 3Com, maker of internet router and networking equipment, amid questions about the deal’s national security risks.
The largest successful Chinese takeover of a US firm to date is the $2.6bn acquisition of cinema chain AMC Theaters by Dalian Wanda – an entertainment conglomerate – in 2012. Chinese ownership of movie theatres did not trigger political ire.
Food security issues are likely to complicate issues for Shuanghui. In 2011, CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, found the company had produced and sold pork tainted with the banned drug clenbuterol. The chemical is a fat-burning additive sometimes used by bodybuilders that can cause nausea, heart problems and dizziness if consumed by humans.
More recently, China’s food industry has faced a number of scandals. In March, 9,000 dead pigs were found in the Huangpu river. There have also been recent reports of contamination of the Chinese meat supply from a bird-flu outbreak.
Smithfield, too, has been challenged by safety and work practice issues. The first confirmed case of H1N1 swine flu during the 2009 flu pandemic was a five-year-old boy living near a Smithfield subsidiary in Mexico. More than 600 residents living near the plant in La Gloria, Veracruz, were infected with a mysterious respiratory illness.
Smithfield’s US business was also the subject of an award winning video by the Humane Society of the United States documenting the mistreatment of pigs at a subsidiary in Waverly, Virginia.
The board of directors at Smithfield has insisted on a reverse break-up fee should the deal collapse, which would trigger a payment from the Chinese firm if regulatory issues scupper the takeover.
Th US firm was founded in Smithfield, Virginia, in 1936 and has grown into the country’s biggest pork company and one of the largest meat producers in the world through a series of acquisitions. It employs more than 46,000 people in the US, Europe and Mexico, and raises 15.8m pigs a year, producing 3.8bn lbs of fresh pork and 2.7bn lbs of packaged meat.