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.

  • billmarler

    A must read.

  • John Munsell

    The sixth paragraph above refers to food safety concerns, and recurring zero tolerance violations. FSIS is not the least concerned (at the larget packers) about food safety violations, a direct benefit of FSIS-style HACCP, which has deregulated the largest packers. Perhaps the most insidious revelation of FSIS’ unwillingness to implement meaningful enforcement actions at the largest packers can be seen in an August, 2014 agency publication entitled “FSIS Compliance Guideline for Establishments Sampling Beef Trimmings for Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia coli (STEC) Organisms or Virulence Markers”. Whew! This FSIS publication describes agency actions whenever a “High Event Period” (HEP) occurs. A HEP is a day in which a high number of laboratory microbial positives occur, showing that a slaughter plant’s processes are out of control. Well, what % of adverse positives does FSIS allow before the agency concludes that a HEP has occurred? Hold onto your hat here! Three positives out of ten consecutive samples constitues a “local” (isolated) HEP, meaning that two out of ten (20%) positives in the eyes of FSIS does not constitute a food safety problem. And, seven positives out of 30 consecutive samples qualify for a “systemic” (ongoing, recurring) HEP. Thus, only six positives out of 30 (or 20%) do not constitute a food safety problem. Yet, FSIS disengenuously adheres to its impossible “Zero Tolerance” Guidelines for STEC. How does FSIS respond if a HEP occurs? Page 18 states “Based on the results of their traceback activities, EIAOs will make recommendations whether regulatory and enforcement actions are warranted” end quote. Therefore, even when a plant’s lab positives exceed 20%, FSIS will cautiously consider whether regulatory and enforcement actions are warranted. While FSIS enjoys this laissez faire non-involvement role at the largest packers, ignoring ongoing problems, God help any small, downstream further processing plant which experiences but ONE adverse lab positive, even if all its meat was sourced from a large packer. While it is true that all RAW meat is inherently risky, FSIS should be disciplined for allowing such high percentages of STEC-laced meat to be produced at the largest slaughter plants in the total absence of agency enforcement actions. I agree that a single food inspection/food safety agency makes sense, but it should not be FSIS! John Munsell

  • MaryFinelli

    As long as animals continue to be commodified as food, people will continue to sicken and die from it. The only real solution to these problems is to stop contributing to them: Be vegan.

    • Preston Moore

      What do you mean by that factories like these dont only grow meats, the best option is to buy organic if you have the money if not just know what youre buying (research)

    • CopperOwl

      Vegetables are the source of at least as many food-borne illness outbreaks as meats are. Being vegan does not eliminate the risk of illness, even deadly illness. Whatever you eat, you need to be careful. It’s safest to grow your own food, as long as you know how to do that safely.

      • Justine Cantrell

        Your comment does not address the animal abuse or the water pollution issues from manure . Being vegan is still the best option.

  • Oginikwe

    Me too. Also, read “The Meat Racket” by Christopher Leonard. Excellent book about how we got to factory farming from family farming. Instead of Hormel, he focuses on Tyson. Worth the read.

    • Kristin

      Both books are amazing!

  • Oginikwe

    I wouldn’t touch Spam to throw it in the garbage can after reading this series of articles:

    The Spam Factory’s Dirty Secret:

  • Mark Caponigro

    Amongst all kinds of problems with the meat industry, as apparently described in this promising book, not the least serious and complicated is indicated in the paragraph on animal abuse (for many of us by far the single most serious issue). The convictions of low-level employees are rightly called “hollow victories.” We should appreciate these nuances: (1.) All capture or enslavement of animals, and all exploitation of them, are highly unethical, and ideally should be abolished altogether; but (2.) Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations are an especially hideous and reprehensible form of this exploitation; and while the CAFO system is itself morally objectionable, (3) that system magnifies its animal abuse as a result of its unjust treatment of its workers, and its poor management of them.

  • Jerry Ryan

    “PINK HAZE” @ HORMEL PLANT in Fremont, NE?

    It may be Valentine’s folks, but there’s NOTHING WARM & FUZZY about employees inhaling this reported PINK HAZE from the heads, &/or brains, of pork !!!

    It is also reported, that SOME employees who worked in this sector of the plant in Fremont,
    Are you kidding me?

    Imagine the conditions of a plant processing 1300 animals / hr?
    That’s 1 every 2.77 Secs !!!

    Not to mention; The ability of USDA Inspectors to keep up?

    Hormel “certainly seems” to be rather PREOCCUPIED with OTHER ISSUES than the health of its employees, or safeguarding their neighbors potable water supply.

    I’d much rather hear what HORMEL is doing for those whom were injured in their employ, as opposed to having to read about their support of “AG-GAG” Laws, wouldn’t you?

    And tell me … Where else in America does one have to, SWEAR they are a US Citizen before they can rent an apartment?
    WHO was the driving force behind getting this “Ordinance” passed?

    Seems like, “Something is rotten in the state of” … Fremont, NE?