China-US Pork Trade Surges Despite Regulatory Gaps

China’s ban on some U.S. pork imports because of a feed chemical called actopamine comes amidst booming food and agricultural trade between the countries.

China’s ban took some U.S. companies by surprise. Tyson Food plants in Iowa and Indiana; a Hormel Food plant in Nebraska; Triumph Food in Missouri, and Quality Pork Processors in Minnesota, were among those affected. All had profited from surging Chinese consumer demand for pork.

“The food trade between both countries is significant, and the trade in agricultural food commodities coming into China from America is a very large number,” said Michael Boddington, with Asian Agribusiness Consulting.

Last year U.S. pork exports to China were valued at $645.3 million; the increasing trade has implications for food safety and economics for both countries.

China has banned some pork imports because U.S. producers often use a chemical called ractopamine — which promotes lean muscle growth — as a feed additive.

Ractopamine is banned in China.

According to Wu Heng, founder of Throw it Out the Window, a volunteer-run website that documents China’s food safety problems, China forbids any types of lean meat additives, including those approved and regulated by the USDA official.

“It’s not just a tit for tat, though it may play out that way,” said Mindi Schneider, professor at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands. “But it’s actually that China has more stringent food regulations when it comes to ractopamine than the U.S. does.”

Abiding different food safety standards is tricky business for companies that import and export food products, especially at a time of surging trade. Last year Chinese-owned WH Group, formerly called Shuanghui International Holdings, took over America’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods Inc., in a $4.7 billion acquisition. The deal, the largest-ever purchase of a U.S. company by a Chinese firm, required Smithfield to begin phasing ractopamine from its production process.  

The Smithfield takeover saw WH Group sales rise 220 percent to $10.5 billion and profits triple in the first half of this year.

The company says it purchased Smithfield to learn the processing techniques of an American pork producer.

According to Schneider, the takeovers and increased trade are a sign of rapid change in China’s agriculture industry.

“China’s food is quickly becoming industrialized, so it is changing very quickly,” stated Schneider.

Hong Kong-listed and mainland Chinese firms spent $12.3 billion on foreign takeovers and investments in food, drink and agriculture last year, and WH Group plans to expand a network of Smithfield-branded kiosks throughout China.

China is the world’s largest pork producer and consumer.

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