SMITHFIELD, Va. – Smithfield Foods Inc. hired Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to explore its options after a shareholder urged the company to split up, according to news reports.

Analysts speculate that splitting the company into three separate businesses could bring value of as much as $48 per share. Analysts also forecast Goldman to explore selling Smithfield's hog farms and processing plants to an Asia-based company.

Continental Grain Co., one of largest shareholders of Smithfield Foods, sent a letter to the company and the US Securities and Exchange Commission urging Smithfield to split into three independent companies in an effort to boost shareholder value.

But Larry Pope, president and CEO of Smithfield, dismissed the idea.

“I’ve looked at that idea,” Pope said in response to an analyst’s question regarding a spin-off. “It’s complex and not easy to do. And you’d be surprised how integrated this business is, particularly the pieces [and] how they tie together.”

But at the same time, the company is “essentially two companies” made up of a commodity-based live production company and a fresh and processed consumer-packaged meats company.

On March 8, Smithfield acknowledged receipt of the letter and said the board of directors along with its financial and legal advisers “will review it in due course.”