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Va. Ponders Smithfield Buyout

Proud Town Residents Conflicted About Chinese Ownership

In this May 29, 2013 photo, hams and other memorabilia is displayed at a restaurant in Smithfield, Va. Smithfield Foods has agreed to be bought by Shuanghui International Holdings for about $4.72 billion. Residents in this southeastern Virginia town have mixed reactions to the idea that the maker of their famous cured hams may soon be owned by a Chinese company. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Amanda Lucier)

In this May 29, 2013 photo, hams and other memorabilia is displayed at a restaurant in Smithfield, Va. Smithfield Foods has agreed to be bought by Shuanghui International Holdings for about $4.72 billion. Residents in this southeastern Virginia town have mixed reactions to the idea that the maker of their famous cured hams may soon be owned by a Chinese company. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Amanda Lucier)

Smithfield, Va. — You can’t go far in this historic southeastern Virginia town without seeing a pig.

A herd of life-size swine statues lines its downtown, an ornament of a piglet wearing a bandanna adorns a front lawn, hams hang in storefronts and a pickup truck flaunts the license plate “PIG TIME.”

The home of the world’s largest pork producer and maker of famous Smithfield hams is divided in its reaction to news that the company agreed to be bought by a Chinese company. The reception is as mixed as whether the locals favor salt-cured or sugar-cured ham.

Smithfield Foods Inc. agreed to a $4.72 billion offer from Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., the majority shareholder in China’s largest meat processor. The deal, which would be the largest takeover of a U.S. company by a Chinese firm, still faces a federal regulatory review and Smithfield shareholder approval.

Steps from the site where the company was founded in 1936, residents in the “Ham Capital of the World” greet each other on a main street lined with white picket fences and Victorian-style homes, and welcome a neighbor back from a recent trip out of town. Just down the road, workers shuffle into the company’s packing plants for their shifts.

Looking out on the street that’s lined with antique cars every weekend, locals frequent Smithfield Gourmet Bakery and Beanery, grabbing their morning coffee and pastry. Some are shocked that “China would own our Smithfield,” said Carolyn Burke, a longtime resident who owns the eatery.

“It’s Smithfield ham, it’s not China ham,” she said.

And she’s right: Pork produced here for more than 300 years became so popular that many places in the 1930s tried to pass off their ham as Smithfield ham, which led to branding each ham so customers knew it was authentic. The state even passed a since-revised law in 1926, stating the “Smithfield ham” moniker could only be used for cuts of peanut-fed hogs processed and salt-cured in the town limits.

As important as the pork itself is Smithfield Foods, which employs about 3,800 people in Virginia. In its most recent fiscal year, it brought in sales of more than $13 billion and made a profit of $361 million.

The company, its founding family — the Luters — and those who work there donate time and money to the community, funding parks, public restrooms and other projects.

“You either have a family member who works there, or has worked there, or you had a summer job there. It’s just such a part of our community,” said Sheila Gwaltney, the director of a local arts center and a more-than-40-year resident whose husband’s family has been in the area since 1666. “Smithfield has been so good for the town.”

With its namesake and well-being on the line, Smithfield native and Mayor T. Carter Williams, 71, hopes the pending sale doesn’t compromise the town’s identity.

“They say that everything’s going to stay the same, and we all just hope that it does,” he said. His wife, Connie, works at Taste of Smithfield, a hometown restaurant the company opened about a year ago to showcase its products. “We’ll just see where it ends up, time will tell.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Smithfield Foods CEO Larry Pope said the move showed “the globalization of the world and how it affects small-town America.”

“But Smithfield, Virginia, has nothing to worry about,” Pope said. “We’re in a mature market ... and to continue to grow we have to look at opportunities outside the United States.”