Reading “The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food,” a new book from journalist Ted Genoways, one begins to wonder who is treated better: the millions of hogs consumed in America each year, or the people who work on the farms and in the factories that breed and slaughter them. The easiest conclusion to draw is that neither are treated well.
In Genoways’ own words, the book is “an attempt to calculate the true cost of cheap meat.” The book focuses on the production of Spam, the processed pork product from the Hormel Foods Corporation, to show the wide-reaching impact of industrialized meat production.
Based on the author’s reporting, that production has serious consequences on areas ranging from worker welfare and animal cruelty to water quality and food safety. A lot of the problems, it turns out, are associated with the ever-increasing slaughter line speeds at processing facilities.
Since 1947, two Hormel plants have continued to meet the demand for Spam, which is fatty, cheap, and spikes in popularity during economic downturns. After being approved for a pilot program known as HIMP through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Hormel was able to gradually increase line speeds from roughly 900 hogs per hour to more than 1,300.
At speeds this high, inspectors in the plants can do little more than visually check hog heads while sitting in a chair, whereas most inspectors are required to check the tail, head, tongue, thymus and viscera.
Food safety concerns arise, with Food Safety and Inspection Service officials apparently finding recurring zero-tolerance violations when hogs made it through processing with cancerous tumors, full-body inflammation and lesions from tuberculosis — not to mention the fecal contamination associated with foodborne illness. (At the same time, USDA recently reported that HIMP plants matched non-HIMP plants in terms of safety and wholesomeness of hog slaughter and consumer protection.)
The faster speeds were also blamed on numerous worker injuries, perhaps most worrisome a mysterious disease dubbed Progressive Inflammatory Neuropathy, or PIN. Starting in 2006, workers at Hormel began coming down with strange symptoms of degenerative nerves after being assigned to the brain station, where they would puncture hog heads to scramble brains into a slurry.
The process produced a fine pink mist of brain material with each puncture, which the workers would breathe over the course of long shifts. This mist was eventually blamed for their ailments, which for some included losing the ability to walk.
The book also details the struggle between white and immigrant neighbors in the communities where these plants are located, the towns of Austin, MN, and Fremont, NE. A generation ago, most employees at the plants were white and paid a salary that afforded a middle-class lifestyle. Today, that workforce has been almost completely replaced by Hispanic and Asian workers who are paid significantly less. Fremont recently passed a city-wide ordinance that requires home renters to swear they are U.S. citizens.
Genoways addresses animal abuse cases at hog farms that supply Hormel processing plants, including one that resulted in the conviction of six low-level employees who were caught beating and torturing animals by animal rights activists with undercover cameras posing as employees. The activists called those convictions “hollow victories” in one regard because no higher-up managers faced repercussions, but they did have some effect by leading to reforms on farms.
The undercover videos inspired another reaction: Hormel worked to support so-called “ag-gag” laws in hog-producing states — laws that make it illegal to record video or take photos on farms. Meat companies stand to lose billions of dollars in recalls, legal fees, and lost business when such abuses are captured on camera.
Also explored in the book is the history of using antibiotics to promote growth in pigs, a technique that was in part pioneered at the Hormel Institute, a partnership between Hormel and the University of Minnesota.
Giant hog operations produce a serious amount of manure — five billion gallons of liquid manure each year in Iowa alone, Genoways writes. That gets pooled into manure lagoons or added to crops for fertilizer, but the runoff can lead to significant problems with water quality for surrounding communities.
Combined with what some experts call abuse of antibiotics, the manure contamination has led to statistically higher risks of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, in people who live close to hog farming operations.
Today, Genoways writes, “it seems that we are not so much concerned with safety as promoting an illusion of safety.”
After winding through stories of animal abuse, contaminated water and sickened workers, the book ends by coming full circle back to Spam.
By volume, Spam is 27-percent fat. But because hogs are getting leaner and leaner, Hormel must now buy fat from other producers to add to its Spam recipe. And yet, since 1947, Hormel has managed to churn out the world’s supply of Spam from two factories.
In January 2014, the company revealed plans to expand Spam production to a third plant — the first Spam expansion in almost 70 years.© Food Safety News