U.S. meat company Smithfield Foods Inc.'s once ravenous appetite for growth may be abating as the company may now focus on paying down debt, according to comments made on Wednesday by its chief executive.

Smithfield is the world's largest hog producer and pork processor, a leading U.S. beef processor, co-owner of a huge U.S. turkey operation, and co-owner of the largest U.S. cattle feedlot.

The acquisitions that produced those levels of scale were largely made in the past 10 years.

At this point, we don't have much on the acquisition front in front of us, Larry Pope, Smithfield chief executive officer, said on the sidelines of the company's annual meeting being held in Williamsburg, Virginia, some 150 miles south of Washington, D.C.


A result of that rapid growth, Smithfield has amassed more than $3 billion in debt.

I am concerned about the debt level. I would love to be investment grade BBB-plus, we are BB, he said of the company's credit rating.

Smithfield's debt is 54 percent to total capitalization and for an improvement in credit ratings Pope said that would likely have be reduced to less than 50 percent.

We are a ways away from that, he said. I need to not do this aggressive cap-ex (capital expenditures) and acquisitions and I need to pay down some debt. It is not job one, but it is clearly on my thought process.

In the United States, federal anti-trust regulators would likely prevent Smithfield from buying another U.S. pork plant.

With its recent purchase of hog and pork company Premium Standard Farms, Smithfield now has about 30 percent of the U.S. pork market, which has been seen by industry sources as the maximum the U.S. Justice Department would allow.

In addition to its U.S. holdings, Smithfield has significant hog and pork operations in Eastern Europe, primarily Poland and Romania. But Pope said the company's growth plans in Europe also have slowed.

We've looked at some opportunities, just smallish. We don't have anything on the near term right now, he said.


Smithfield, the fifth largest U.S. beef producer, could get bigger in U.S. beef in regard to anti-trust regulations, but that may not happen in the near term.

It plans to build a beef plant in Oklahoma are now on hold, partly due to the difficulty in finding enough workers to staff it, Pope said.

Also, other U.S. beef plants appear to be in strong hands. It was once thought by industry sources that Brazilian meat company JBS-Friboi might shed one or more beef plants of Swift & Co., the beef and pork company it bought this year. But Pope said it appears JBS may not sell any.

About 125 shareholders attended the annual meeting in this historic community, not far from Smithfield's headquarters in Smithfield, Virginia.

One shareholder resolution presented called for future acquisitions to be approved beforehand by shareholders, but that was later defeated in a shareholder vote.