* China wants verification pork is ractopamine-free
* Smithfield converting Tar Heel plant to meet deadline
* Clinton plant already shipping additive-free pork
By Theopolis Waters
CHICAGO, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Smithfield Foods Inc, the world's largest pork processor, said on Thursday it will be able to supply pork that is free of the feed additive ractopamine in time to meet a March 1 deadline by China.
China, the world's largest pork consumer and the third largest market for U.S. pork with sales of over $800 million last year, wants pork from the United States to be verified by a third party from March 1 to be free of ractopamine, an additive that promotes lean muscle growth.
Russia, which imported $550 million worth of U.S. beef, pork and turkey last year, has banned imports of meat from the United States due to the presence of the food additive.
Smithfield said in a statement that it is in the final stages of converting its plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, the world's largest pork-processing facility, to be ready to meet China's new requirement before the March 1 deadline.
Smithfield also said its plant in Clinton, North Carolina, has been producing pork free of ractopamine since last year and has regularly shipped product from there since then.
"As the largest hog producer in the world, Smithfield is uniquely positioned to deliver differentiated products to meet customer specifications - both domestically and abroad," C. Larry Pope, the company's chief executive and president, said in the statement.
The two North Carolina plants combined are expected to supply the market with more than 43,000 ractopamine-free hogs per day.
Hogs will come from company-owned farms as well as contracted producers and will be fed from feed mills that do not contain ractopamine, Smithfield said.
Smithfield shares were up marginally at $22.37, even as the Dow Jones industrial average was down 0.44 percent.
China's new requirement comes even though there have been no recent reported findings of the feed additive in any pork from the United States, stirring speculation among industry analysts that the move stems from a political agenda or is designed to protect China's pork industry.
Officials from China's quarantine bureau, which oversees the safety of food imports, declined to comment earlier in the week. A spokesman said the country's commerce ministry was unaware of the move.
There was concern that China's requirement for third-party testing could hurt U.S. pork exports to the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, valued at $886 million last year.
With respect to the added layer of verification by China, Smithfield's Pope said the company is urging U.S. government officials to "work to quickly and decisively" to resolve the matter.
"We are in close contact with the U.S. government to address this situation, and our customers in China and Russia are also encouraging their respective governments to develop a protocol with the U.S. government that is acceptable to all parties," Pope said.