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Sale of Swift & Co. raises questions in Worthington

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Swift plant
Business continued as usual Tuesday at the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant in Worthington. The facility is being sold to a Brazilian company as part of a $1.4 billion deal.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

JBS-Friboi, the largest beef processor in Latin America, bought the Swift meatpacking business from a Dallas investment group known as HM Capital Partners.  

The sale includes Swift's Minnesota pork processing plant in Worthington, which employs about 2,300 people.  

Livestock trucks
Livestock trucks line up at the gate of the Swift plant in Worthington.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Swift, which is headquartered in Greeley, Colorado, has beef and pork processing plants in five other states and an operation in Australia.

Last December, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested about 230 workers at the Worthington plant.  It was part of a nationwide action against Swift.  In all, nearly 1,300 illegal immigrants were arrested at six Swift plants across the country.  

Edward Herring, a partner with HM Capital, says Swift is fully recovered from the economic impact of the immigration raid.  He says the quick comeback impressed potential bidders.  

"Under duress you're able to see how people perform, and that certainly gave the potential buyers a lot of confidence in our management team,"  says Herring.  "I don't think it had ... certainly all that negative of an impact on the process.  The outcome was quite successful from everyone's perspective."  

Catalina Rodriguez Perez
Catalina Rodriguez Perez is a Swift worker who was arrested during the December 2006 immigration raid at the Worthington plant. She was held in jail for almost six days before being reunited with her year-old son.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Swift officials say the immigration raid cost the company $50 million. Much of that was in lost production as the company struggled to replace workers and bring its slaughter numbers back to normal.  

HM Partners' Edward Herring says the actual decision to sell the company was made about six  months before the raid took place.  He says it came after several parties expressed interest in buying Swift.   

Based in Sao Paulo, JBS-Friboi has 23 plants in Brazil and six in Argentina. It had nearly $1.8 billion in sales last year.

Some analysts are calling the new JBS-Swift combination the world's biggest meat processor. For the cities where Swift processing plants are located, the news of the sale brought with it several questions.  

Glen Thuringer, manager of Worthington's Regional Economic Development Corp., says the biggest concern is an obvious one -- whether the plant will stay open.   

ICE symbol
Buses belonging to ICE rolled into the Swift parking lot in December 2006 when federal officials conducted an immigration raid at the plant.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"Swift has always a been a good corporate citizen, so I've got to feel that they're looking out for the longevity of the facility and the employees there.  So, I guess there's a comfort level in this,"  says Thuringer.

Thuringer says besides being the largest employer in Worthington, Swift is also an economic driver for the entire region.  All sorts of businesses, like electrical contractors, construction companies and trucking firms also do business with Swift.  

Steve Kay with Cattle Buyers Weekly says he expects the Worthington plant will do well under the new ownership.  He says Worthington is one of Swift's most efficient facilities.  

Kay also says the sale may help farmers who sell cattle and hogs to Swift.  He says the fact that a non-U.S. company bought the meatpacker helps slow the rate of consolidation in the industry.  

"Had another U.S. player in the meat processing business bought Swift, there inevitably would have been consolidation.  It would have led to one less buyer in possibly both beef and pork,"  says Kay.

Kay says the nation's meatpacking industry has undergone a rapid consolidation in the last two decades.  He says fewer livestock bidders means less competition for those animals, which can hurt the price farmers receive.  

Assuming federal anti-trust regulators give their approval to the deal, JBS will assume ownership of Swift in mid-July.      

     (The Associated Press contributed to this report)