By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
Weeks before a Chinese conglomerate agreed to buy Smithfield Foods Inc. in the largest such takeover of a U.S. business, Missouri lawmakers quietly approved legislation removing a ban on foreign ownership of agricultural land.
The northern Missouri legislator whose amendments to a pair of larger bills helped push the plan through the Legislature and onto the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon said he wants to provide greater oversight of foreign ownership, which will be capped in Missouri at 1 percent and require state approval. The changes were approved on the final day of the legislative session.
"The law doesn't work," said Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, citing legal loopholes that allow foreign owners to mask their assets behind domestic-based groups. "What I want to do is make it work ... It will provide a degree of accountability for an international corporation that it wouldn't have before."
Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. announced its plans to purchase Smithfield Foods on May 29 in a deal that still requires shareholder approval and a federal regulatory review by the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment. The deal's expected value is $7.1 billion, including debt.
Missouri is one of several Midwest states with little-known laws passed in the 1970s amid concerns over Japanese investment that prohibit or restrict foreign farmland ownership. Smithfield Foods' spokeswoman Keira Lombardo said the two sides "identified this issue during their discussions and it presents no obstacles to closing the proposed combination."
"Smithfield's operations do not fall under the provisions of many of the states ... and only a few of them have applicable laws that need to be satisfied," she said. "We intend to consult and work closely with appropriate state officials on this matter as appropriate after the closing."
In Oklahoma, the law limiting foreign farmland ownership exempts swine operations, said Diane Clay, an Attorney General's Office spokeswoman. And in Iowa, the office of Attorney General Tom Miller said it expects Smithfield Foods' new owner to "comply with all (laws and) agreements," including a consent decree related to livestock production by meatpackers.
"We hope to close the loop soon, whether it's a final letter from Smithfield to us or a memo of understanding from our office to Smithfield," said Geoff Greenwood, a Mille spokesman.
The Missouri bill awaits Nixon's approval, and his office declined to say whether he would sign it. The offices of Attorney General Chris Koster and the state Department of Agriculture also declined to comment.
A Columbia-based group that opposes the corporate consolidation of the agriculture industry criticized Guernsey's handling of the legislation. Language removing the foreign ban was added to two Senate bills in late April while in the House Agribusiness Committee, which is chaired by Guernsey. The underlying bills to which the amendments were added deal with farm loans and University of Missouri Extension districts.
In early May, Guernsey added an amendment while the bill was on the House floor that doubled the allowable foreign farmland ownership from half a percent to 1 percent.
"To call it a coincidence is doing a disservice to the democratic process," said Tim Gibbons of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, referring to the legislative votes that preceded the Smithfield sale announcement and the absence of broader debate. "These things should have been discussed. And they weren't."
Guernsey, a dairy and beef cattle farmer, countered that he introduced a similar bill in May 2012. He bristled at suggestions that the foreign ownership ban was lifted at the request of Smithfield, which he said is the largest employer in his five-county district and a campaign contributor of Guernsey's.
"I didn't even know about Smithfield until we were out of session," he said. "Trust me, the last person Smithfield tells about any of their business decisions is Casey Guernsey."
While Guernsey said he "can't stand the thought of the Chinese owning our largest employer," he's eager to see the potential economic benefits of a deal that some observers believe was driven by greater demand among Chinese consumers for U.S.-produced food.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt shared a similar sentiment.
"That's a great opportunity for U.S. agriculture and a great opportunity for American agriculture," he said. "Once people get better food they universally do not want to go back to the bad food again. Not only is there going to be more people but there's going to be more demand and more competition for the food that's out there."