SMITHFIELD, Va. (WUSA9) -- The pending sale of an iconic Virginia pork producer to a Chinese company has sparked an interesting debate: Is China buying too much of America?
The numbers last year alone point to a major Chinese shopping spree. WUSA 9's Andrea McCarren traveled to Southern Virginia to see what one Chinese company has in store for Smithfield Foods.
Pigs--and patriotism--reign supreme in Smithfield.
"Not every small town has a Fortune 500 company in its backyard," said Jim Abicht, the owner of The Christmas Store. www.christmasstoresmithfield.com/
Smithfield Foods built this town with pork and over three generations it became the largest hog producer and pork processor in the world.
"We've made other parts of the globe rich. Now those parts of the globe can afford to buy us," said Abicht.
A Chinese company has bid $4.7 billion to take over Smithfield.
One worker said, "They claim you won't see no difference though. You never can tell!"
It could make the Virginia icon as global as its workforce.
"It does not bother me at all," said a man leaving work at the end of his shift. "The object is, make sure you still have a job."
In a matter of minutes, we met workers from Nepal, Haiti, Myanmar and Central America.
"Esta muy bien," said a woman from Honduras, referring to her job.
A co-worker added, "As long as they be fair, treat everybody equal."
And another offered an optimistic outlook. He said, "Maybe they can up some money. That'd be good for everybody involved."
Pork is China's meat of choice, accounting for nearly ¾ of its overall meat consumption. In fact, the Chinese now eat six times the amount of pork that Americans do.
"They don't always have the healthiest pork," said Constance Rhodes of the Smithfield Chamber of Commerce.
In fact, Shuanghui International has weathered a series of food safety scandals. In 2011, the company was forced to recall some of its pork products after reportedly buying pigs that had been fed a harmful additive that was banned a decade ago.
One year later, maggots were discovered in Shuanghui ribs and tests on its sausages revealed excessive bacteria. Other sausages were found to contain unknown substances. And some went bad before their sell-by date.
Said Rhodes, "We will be taking our lean, generation beef and putting a nice little stamp on the back rear end of that, that says made in Smithfield!"
Around town and across the country, the uneasiness over this deal is palpable.
"I don't know. Wait and see," said a worker in the company's parking lot.
Argued Rhodes, "We're sending our manufacturing products to China. Instead of vice versa."
We asked the opinion of economist Dr. Peter Morici, who told us, "It's a bad deal for American workers. Initially, we'll get some exports, they'll learn how to produce the pork themselves, the industry will move there. Before you know it, the pork industry will move there, like the auto parts industry."
But is this pending deal for Smithfield indicative of the buying of America by China?
"Absolutely! The reason they're buying Smithfield is they know zero about running a safe hog supply chain," said Morici.
In 2012 alone, Chinese buyers offered $11.6 billion in 49 deals to purchase American companies or stakes in them. That shopping spree is more than the Chinese total from 2009 to 2011 combined.
"We play the game the world demands," remarked Abicht, back in sleepy Smithfield, where pigs are also plentiful in his Christmas Store.
"This was made in China," he told us, pointing to one pig-filled holiday ornament, one of a batch that came from China with a bit of a problem.
"Oriental eyes!" said Abicht. "I kept saying I need you to Americanize the eyes. I need round eyes!"
At least for now, the town still boasts its "Ham, History and Hospitality," but history in Smithfield may be rewritten, once again.
The Smithfield-Shuanghui deal will be scrutinized by several federal agencies before it's approved. The Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment will look into any national security concerns. In the meantime, food safety advocates are urging Congress to block the deal.