Pork: The New Weapon of Mass Destruction

One of the greatest horrors of the US security and policy establishment is the prospect of terrorists sabotaging critical infrastructure and key resources — the only horror greatest than that is the prospect of turning the infrastructure itself into a weapon of mass destruction.  Imagine a vast network of pipelines and storage units containing highly combustible material and a group of terrorists with a matchbox.  Now, imagine a pig farm and a Chinese company — same effect.

What is critical infrastructure?  According to the US security establishment, critical infrastructure comprises all the systems, the “systems of systems” on which the “Nation’s safety, security, prosperity, and way of life” depend.1  So when this infrastructure, such as the energy infrastructure, crosses borders or depends on inputs under the control of foreign entities — on decisions made outside the US by foreign entities — the “Nation’s safety, security, prosperity” and the American “way of life” itself are imperiled.  We know that national security and the American way of life are the vehicles by which imperial and capitalist interests become “national” interests — the vehicles that rally conservatives, liberals, and progressives (and not a few self-proclaimed leftists) behind imperialist aggression and capitalist expansion.  But the threats are real: can you imagine what the interruption of the oil supply would do to the American way of life?  Now, imagine Chinese control over the pork supply — same effect.

Critical infrastructure and key resources (CI/KR), however, are more than the networks that supply the US with energy and resources; and their vulnerability, according to the Homeland Security Department’s National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP) of 2009, derives partly from the federal government and US corporations’ ownership of “a significant number of facilities located outside the United States that may be considered CI/KR.”  The NIPP does not specify what categories of US-owned foreign assets it considers “critical” or “key” to the security of “the Nation,” but can you imagine which overseas assets owned by the US government or private corporations would not be considered “critical” to the national interest?  One case in point: when the China National Offshore Oil Corporation made a bid to acquire Unocal in 2005, the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) blocked the deal on grounds of national security — most of Unocal’s assets were in Southeast Asia.  A similar thing happened in 2006 when Dubai Ports World acquired the British — i.e. foreign — port operator Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation (P&O), which controls operations in major port terminals in the US.  In this case it was not US-owned overseas assets but foreign-owned assets in the US which were nevertheless considered as critical to the nation’s security, if not more.  DP World’s bid caused a public outcry and triggered a political campaign against “foreign control over critical infrastructure during wartime,” as the Wall Street Journal then put it, tying Dubai to the September 11 hijackers.  Instantly the marine industry in the US became “vulnerable to terrorism.”  (Incidentally, the campaign against that takeover began before DP World won the deal; it was launched by Eller & Co, a Florida stevedoring firm based in Fort Lauderdale and a partner of P&O in the port of Miami, which feared that the takeover would harm its business interests in the US.  After British courts dismissed its objections Eller & Co turned to the ever-compliant US Congress, which blocked DP World from taking over P&O and forced it to divest itself of all US holdings.  Dubai at that time had recently become the home for the headquarters of Halliburton.)

A similar backlash has been recently triggered by Shuanghui International’s bid to acquire Smithfield Foods.  In monetary terms, this would be the largest acquisition of a US company by a Chinese company; in itself, however, the deal is not really that large: $4.7 billion ($7.1 billion including debt).  It’s not its monetary size, but the event of a “Chinese acquisition of an American company,” as New York Times prefers to describe it, that appears horrifying.  Chinese capitalism managed to make pork a matter of national security and pig farming, as The Economist put it, a “strategic industry.”  But, for liberals, Chinese acquisitions are perceived as a threat not simply to US national security but to liberal capitalism itself.  Shuanghui is pursuing what all corporation do: offshoring production where it is profitable, and doing so not by investing in new fixed capital but by acquiring already existing assets, in this case a whole corporation (including its debt).  There’s nothing unusual about this: oil companies do it, mining companies do it, pharmaceutical companies do it, banks do it, and food companies do it.  As Tom Philpott put it in Mother Jones recently, “Industrial pork: the iPhone’s culinary mirror image.”  More accurately, it’s the mirror image of whatever industrial foods US food companies manufacture in China.  Besides, Shuanghui is not contracting production to another company, which would absolve it of any responsibility about what happens on the factory floor.  So Philpott’s equation is incorrect.  Yet, Philpott’s choice of the iPhone — mobilized by an unconscious colonial division of labor — is symptomatic of the fears that liberals have about Chinese capitalism, given the abuse of workers in factories manufacturing products for Apple.  For Philpott the whole deal is “an ironic twist, China appears to be taking advantage of lax environmental and labor standards in the US to supply its citizens with something it can’t get enough of.  Industrial pork.”  There’s really nothing ironic here, except for liberals living with the fantasy that dirty environmental and labor practices are exclusively a foreign problem, i.e. advantages to US companies elsewhere but not at home.  It’s not irony, it’s capitalism: Toyota does it, BP does it, Ikea does it — all in the US.

Although most seem to agree that the deal is meant to provide undersupplied Chinese markets with US pork — and some even agree that this is good for Chinese markets since US pork is produced by more efficient means and will provide Chinese consumers with “meat that meets stricter food safety standards” — it is nevertheless perceived as an intrusion into the food supplies of the US.  The general paranoia about Chinese food imports reversed the geography of the deal altogether and made it look as if it’s an attempt by China to push its pork into the US food supply or gain control over US food supplies.  Shuanghui will presumably import American pork into Chinese markets but “ultimately export the pork it produces in China to the United States.”  Here’s what Stanley Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Local Unions, told the New York Times: “They’re already trying to send their chicken products over here [that’s true, but through the proper trade channels]. . . . So I’m of the opinion this is going to get their foot in the door, letting them claim, We’re an American-based company now, and so why would you try to block us?” (30 May 2013).  The anonymous “they” is always ominous, and whatever nefarious plans “they” have, “they” will carry them out under the pretense of being “an American-based company.”  The Manchurian candidate all over again!  One pig farmer in Iowa, Neal Keppy, was much more reasonable and less conspiratorial but he still worried about the availability of pork in the case of a food crisis: “What I think is more concerning is if China owns Smithfield, who knows if that pork will stay in this country if the food supply gets tight? . . .  In that case, a lot of pork will head for China instead of feeding U.S. mouths” (NYT 30 May, 2013).  Let them eat vegetable dumplings!

Professor Steven Davidoff offered further concerns — issues that would arise in the review of the deal by CFIUS — about “whether Shuanghui will be in a position to disrupt the United States’ food supply — or at least the supply of pork.”  There is a direct threat in this deal it seems to the national security of the US if there are existing contracts with Smithfield to supply pork to the US military and “security agencies” and if there is transfer of “special technology like farm-rearing techniques” (NYT 31 May 2013).  I can see why the control of bacon going to the CIA might put the security of the security agencies at risk but I cannot see how the transfer of pig-rearing technologies to China would undermine the national security of the US: under what circumstances would pig-rearing technologies, for example, be considered dual-use technologies?

(The irony is that while farmers, lobbyists, inspectors, and law professors were fretting about the disruption of the food supply network by a Chinese company’s acquisition of a US company, genetically modified wheat has been detected growing in Oregon “like weed.”  The threat of that?  The disruption of American exports of wheat: the USDA does not know if any of that wheat, courtesy of Monsanto, has made it to the food supply or food exports; nonetheless, there’s no perceived threat to health or security here, just plain economic threat to the income of US farmers.  Japan already suspended imports of Oregon wheat.  The prices of wheat in the US accordingly plummeted.)

Those concerns about American food supplies and technology transfer are petty compared with the true imperialist sentiment which was recently on display in the US Congress at a hearing concerning the prospect of importing chicken from China.  For it is not genuinely American if the national interest is not at once, always also universal.  Here’s how Dana Rohrabacher, head of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats [i.e. China], opened a recent Congressional hearing on “The Threat of China’s Unsafe Consumables” [after spelling the title of the hearing Rohrabacher muttered, almost to himself, “emerging threats”]: “The health and safety, not only of the United States and Europe but that of people around the world, has come to be dependent on the quality of goods imported from China.  Yet the task of inspecting and testing Chinese goods is beyond the ability of governments, considering the magnitude of that challenge.”  (The hearing and submitted statements are available here: foreignaffairs.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-hearing-threat-china’s-unsafe-consumables).  Perhaps food inspection should be privatized?

In Congress, China — an “emerging threat” that has been emerging since China was “lost” in 1949 — is a threat to the health and safety of the whole world.  What is to be done?  Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, told Congress at the same hearing that more resources should be given to the USDA and the FDA to inspect Chinese food imports.  But here’s the more interesting recommendation: the USDA should export US inspection systems to China (determine if China’s inspection systems are “equivalent” to the systems in the US); and the FDA and the USDA should be given the resources to “conduct inspections in food facilities in China . . . the USDA should permanently assign inspection personnel to China so that the exporting plants receive regular visits by USDA inspectors.”  Regular visits from permanent personnel in China — imperialism with a food safety face.  At the same hearing, William C. Triplett II — author of Bowing to Beijing: How Barack Obama Is Hastening America’s Decline and Ushering a Century of Chinese Domination, which was endorsed by Ted Nugent — expressed the imperialist sentiment more bluntly in his testimony at the same hearing: “as a practical matter, the only long term solution to this or any other China-related problem is for China to become a democratic country.”  We’ve seen what happens when the US deems other countries in dire need of democratization a threat to the security of the whole world.  This time, however, it will be to protect the world from Chinese pork.

The real threat to the security of people around the world, besides capitalism, is the American obsession with (the Chinese threat to) the security of people around the world.


1  I discuss this at length in my essay “The Geopolitics of Energy Security and the War on Terror: The Case for Market Expansion and the Militarization of Global Space” in R. Peet, P. Robbins, and M. Watts, eds., Global Political Ecology (London: Routledge).

Mazen Labban is Visiting Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography of Rutgers University.

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