The History and Ownership Behind Smithfield Ham

Smithfield Ham holds an iconic status in American pork products, famous for its distinctive salt-cured flavor. While this specialty ham traces its Virginian roots back centuries, the company that produces Smithfield Ham today has a more complex history, including foreign acquisition. Here’s a look at the origins of Smithfield Ham and how ownership of the brand has changed hands from America to China.

Early Days of Smithfield Ham

The origins of Smithfield Ham date back to the Jamestown colony of Virginia in the 17th century. The town of Smithfield became a center of hog farming and pork curing thanks to its access to salt through the James River. Farmers raised pigs on open range and oak and hickory forests which lent Smithfield hams their signature taste.

By the 1800s Smithfield Ham had achieved international recognition at events like the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The local pork industry continued thriving into the 20th century. The label “Smithfield Ham” was federally protected in 1926 so that only hams processed in Smithfield met the criteria.

Rise of Smithfield Foods

In 1936, Smithfield Ham was purchased by a larger meat company called V.W. Joyner. As industrial hog farming expanded, this company rebranded as Smithfield Foods in 1966.

Under this incorporated name, Smithfield Foods grew into the biggest pork producer in the world. They came to control every stage of pork processing from farm to table. Smithfield still created genuine Smithfield Hams at their oldest plant in Smithfield, VA using traditional curing methods. But they also supplied much more pork on an industrial scale nationwide.

By the 1990s, Smithfield Foods had consolidated the U.S. pork industry, acquiring competitors like John Morrell and Co. The corporation faced controversies related to factory farming pollution, labor issues, and price-fixing. But profits kept rising into the billions.

Chinese Acquisition of Smithfield

In 2013, a Chinese corporation called WH Group purchased Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion. This remains the largest-ever Chinese acquisition of an American company.

WH Group itself had been formed just that year from the merger of Shuanghui Group and Henan Shuanghui Investment and Development. Shuanghui was the biggest pork producer in China. So this merger created the largest pork company worldwide.

The deal gave WH Group control of Smithfield Ham through its ownership of Smithfield Foods. However, all Smithfield pork products, including its Virginia hams, are still made in the U.S. Smithfield has not exported production jobs to China.

Smithfield Under WH Group

In the years since being bought out by WH Group, Smithfield Foods has continued expanding with new slaughterhouse facilities and contract farm agreements. Their pork sales revenue keeps setting records, surpassing $27 billion in 2021.

But Smithfield has also faced ongoing controversies around pollution, mistreating contract farmers, and concentrated market power in the pork sector. In 2022, a new price-fixing settlement over allegations of artificially inflating pork costs dealt another blow to Smithfield’s reputation.

While no longer American-owned, Smithfield does remain the number one U.S. pork producer and retains facilities in Smithfield, VA to produce authentic Smithfield Hams. The company also emphasizes its commitments to American food safety and environmental standards.

However, many consumers are uncomfortable that this iconic American brand is now foreign-owned. U.S. lawmakers have even proposed restrictions on Chinese ownership of American farmland targeting WH Group’s Smithfield holdings.

The Future of Smithfield

In October 2022, WH Group announced plans to sell shares in Smithfield Foods through an initial public offering (IPO). This looks to be an effort to raise Smithfield’s value by listing it independently on public markets.

WH Group will retain majority ownership even after the IPO. But the stock offering has raised speculation that WH Group might divest Smithfield eventually amidst rising political tensions with the U.S.

For now, the Smithfield Ham many Americans grew up with continues to be mass-produced by a pork giant majority-owned by Chinese corporations. The brand maintains its attachment to Smithfield, Virginia heritage. Yet the pressures of foreign acquisition, industrial farming, and public markets have undeniably shaped the modern identity of this historic meat company.

Smithfield Ham provides just one case study of how globalization and agribusiness have disrupted traditional American food brands. The genuine salt-cured hams bearing the Smithfield name still exist. But the corporation behind Smithfield represents larger economic forces changing the face of American food.

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