The Chinese character for meat looks like a hunk of flesh with ribs attached. When the Chinese use that ideogram, they mean only one kind of protein: pig. From luscious cubes of braised belly to strips of stir-fried loin, pork is so prevalent in China that it is treated as a synonym for meat itself.
It's only fitting, then, that the world's busiest pork butcher is now Chinese. Wan Long, 73, the chairman of Shuanghui International, turned a small-time state-owned plant into China's largest meat-processing company. Now a privately held firm, Shuanghui says it slaughters 15 million pigs a year and is expanding aggressively overseas. Earlier this year, Shuanghui announced it would buy Smithfield Foods, the U.S.'s largest porcine farmer, in a deal valued at $7.1 billion.
The whole hog deal is not without controversy. Just as in the U.S. at the dawn of the 20th century, China's economic development has played havoc with its food chain--and its safety. Shuanghui hasn't been immune to scandal: in 2011 one of its subsidiaries sold pork bulked up with clenbuterol, a banned additive also used by unscrupulous athletes to build mass. Wan quickly expressed contrition for the safety lapse, a kind of personal apology that's rare in corporate China.
One of the reasons Wan wants Smithfield is that many Chinese don't trust domestic meat sources. Smithfield pork will still be made in the U.S., with China's expanding middle class willing to pay for safe chow. (About one-quarter of Smithfield's exports already head to China.) The country's appetite for oil, coal, timber and other treasures has already transformed the world. For a growing nation, the pig is no less vital a resource.