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Home of Smithfield Hams Wary of Buyout

By Michael Felberbaum

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. (SFD) agreed this week to be bought by Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., the majority shareholder in China's largest meat processor, for about $4.72 billion. 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 one another 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 is lined with antique cars every weekend, residents frequent Smithfield Gourmet Bakery and Beanery, grabbing their morning coffee and pastry. Some are shocked that "China would own our Smithfield," said Carolyn Burke, who owns the eatery.

"It's Smithfield ham, it's not China ham," Burke 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.

The town also is home to the world's oldest cured ham from 1902 at the Isle of Wight museum -- complete with its own brass collar around the hock.

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