Iconic 'American' Brands That Are Foreign-Owned

PHOTO: Smithfield Foods Inc. brand sliced deli ham sits on display at a supermarket in Princeton, Illinois, March 5, 2013.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Bacon, sausage and ham are such mainstays of American diets, it's hard to imagine that the largest U.S. pork provider, Smithfield Ham, the 87-year-old Virginia-based meat giant, might soon be owned by the Chinese.

But thanks to a recent $4.7 billion cash acquisition, Shuanghai International Holdings, the majority shareholder of Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development Co., China's largest meat processing enterprise, will now be the parent company of brands like Armour, Farmland and Healthy Ones.

If the deal goes through (there are political worries about Chinese food safety, and another company could always step in and make another offer), it will be the largest acquisition of an American company by a Chinese outfit. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2012, Chinese buyers agreed to spend $11.57 billion in 49 deals to acquire U.S. companies or stakes in U.S. firms.

Some of the brands that we know and love, and consider to be quintessentially American, are actually owned by foreign companies. Here are some of them.

VASELINE

Back in 1872, a named Robert Chesebrough invented a petroleum jelly that he patented as Vaseline. The product was used as an antiseptic during World War II, and eventually became the top producer of petroleum jelly in the US. In 1987, its parent company was bought by British/Dutch monolith, Unilever N.V.

BEN & JERRY'S

Founded in 1978 by fun-loving hippies Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in Burlington, Vermont, Ben & Jerry's and their funky flavors--Cherry Garcia! ChubbyHubby!--is an American institution. But thirteen years ago, it, too, was acquired by Unilever, the British/Dutch company.

GERBER

The "Gerber" baby is almost as famous as the baby food of the same name. Founded by the Fremont Canning Company in Fremont, Mich., in 1927, the company eventually became part of Swiss pharmaceutical company, Novartis. Today, Gerber owns more than 80 percent of the U.S. market for baby food.

PURINA

In 1894, Wiliam H. Danforth of St. Louis launched an animal feed company. More than 100 years later, Purina still produces a range of dog and cat food. But it's no longer American-owned. In 2001, Nestle, a Swiss company, lapped it up.

ALKA-SELTZER

Americans of a certain age remember the "plop plop fizz fizz" sound touted in ads for the effervescent antacid and pain reliever. The magic tablets were developed in 1884 by Maurice Treener, the head chemist at the Dr. Miles Medical Company in Elkhart, Ind. It is now owned by Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company that operates multiple sites in the United States.

JOHN HANCOCK LIFE INSURANCE

Never mind John Hancock's signature on the Declaration of Independence, a decidedly American artifact. John Hancock Life Insurance, which dates back to 1862, was bought in 2004 by Manulife Financial, a Canadian insurance company headquartered in Toronto.

IBM THINKPAD

Never mind the "IBM" before the product name: The line of laptop computers and tablets is owned by Lenovo, a Chinese company that bought IBM's personal computer business in 2005 for $1.75 billion.

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