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Maggots, bacteria allegedly plagued China's number one meat brand

By Ramy Inocencio and Feng Ke, for CNN
May 31, 2013 -- Updated 0449 GMT (1249 HKT)
A Chinese customer selects pieces of pork, supplied by Shuanghui, which controls the country's largest meat-processing company in May 2013. China's Shuanghui International moved to buy US meats icon Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion this week.
A Chinese customer selects pieces of pork, supplied by Shuanghui, which controls the country's largest meat-processing company in May 2013. China's Shuanghui International moved to buy US meats icon Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion this week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China's biggest meat brand, Shuanghui, has tainted food history since 2011
  • Poison, maggots, bacteria allegedly in company products, say Chinese state-run media
  • Shuanghui bid to acquire U.S.-based Smithfield Foods, world's largest pork processor
  • USDA confirms to CNN it will still regulate Smithfield products if merger successful

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Allegations of maggots, excessive bacteria and illegal additives have plagued China's biggest meat products company, Shuanghui International, since at least 2011, according to a series of reports by China's state-run media. On Wednesday, the Hong Kong-headquartered Shuanghui announced its intent to buy U.S.-based Smithfield Foods, the world's largest processor of pork, for nearly $5 billion.

In June 2012, a woman in Beijing allegedly found several dead maggots inside a package of Shuanghui sausages bought at a supermarket. Her daughters, who ate the sausages before the discovery, reportedly suffered from vomiting and diarrhea, according to the Global Times, an English-language newspaper under the Chinese-language People's Daily.

In May 2012, industrial authorities in China's southern coastal city of Guangzhou reported Shuanghui's cumin-flavored sausages contained "excessive" bacteria, which could cause diarrhea, reported the Shanghai Daily.

And in March 2011, China Central Television reported a Shuanghui International subsidiary bought pigs that had been fed with meal containing clenbuterol. The illegal additive keeps the animals lean but can kill people if eaten. Shuanghai's chairman later apologized to consumers and announced nearly $2 billion in losses two weeks after the revelations.

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CNN contacted Shuanghui International for comment on its food safety record. The company directed all questions to its public relations firm which refused to provide any comment, besides a press release.

"All consumers in the United States can continue to enjoy the high quality of safe pork products from Smithfield," said Shuanghui in its statement.

Still, the Chinese firm's attempts to assure continued quality failed to calm all criticism.

"We know that Chinese food products have been a threat to public health and that Shuanghui was found to have produced and sold tainted pork," said U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who held a key role in drafting the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, in a written statement on her professional website.

"This merger (between Shuanghui and Smithfield) may only make it more difficult to protect the food supply. I have deep doubts about whether this merger best serves American consumers and urge federal regulators to put their concerns first."

Major food scandals in China over the past several years have raised concerns both domestically and abroad.

In 2008, more than 13,000 children fell ill after drinking melamine-tainted milk. In 2011, Chinese government scientists revealed that 12 million tons of rice had been tainted with toxic metals. In the intervening years, other food safety issues have included fake beef made from fox and rat as well as exploding watermelons injected with growth hormones.

"Indeed, there are many food scandals that took place in China, but I wouldn't make a judgment of the Chinese pork market based on past individual cases," said Chinese food expert and Renmin University Professor Zheng Fengtian. "If (Shuanghui) kept having problems, its business wouldn't have lasted this long."

He added the proposed merger is a win-win situation despite China's food scares and that the United States should avoid actions that slow down the acquisition.

In a statement, Shuanghui International promised to maintain the same operation, management and brand of Smithfield after completion of the deal. The company said it will also continue cooperation with the same American producers, food suppliers and farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also confirmed to CNN that the "FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) will continue to regulate Smithfield products regardless of a change in ownership."

China is the world's largest producer and consumer of pork products -- titles it will likely retain if Shuanghui 's acquisition of Smithfield succeeds and if the world's most populous nation continues its love of pork.

Between 2002 and 2012, following growing wealth in the country, China's per capita pork consumption jumped by nearly a quarter to 86 pounds of pig products last year. American demand fell 12% over the same time.

Ramy Inocencio reported from Hong Kong and Feng Ke reported from Beijing. CNN's Vivian Kam and Esther Pang also contributed to this report

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