(This is Part 1 of an interview with journalist and author Ted Genoways. Part 2 of the interview will be posted by Food Safety News on Friday, Feb. 6.) Ted Genoways is the author of “The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food,” a new book that explores the wide-reaching impacts of factory pork production and the consequences of increased production speeds. As a case study, the book focuses on the pork production plants that create Spam, the low-cost, canned pork product from Hormel Foods Corporation. (You can read our review of the book here.)

Ted Genoways (photo courtesy of Mary Anne Andrei)
A writer based in Nebraska’s meatpacking country, Genoways began researching the book after learning about workers at the Quality Pork Processors plant in Austin, MN, falling ill with a rare neurological disorder related to inhaling hog brain material during processing on the slaughter line. When he learned that the illnesses developed after the line speeds increased, he decided to take a closer look at how the increasing line speeds caused a chain of negative impacts up and down the pork supply chain. In an hour-long interview, Food Safety News spoke with Genoways about his research into the effects of increased line speeds on food safety, worker safety and the environment. Food Safety News: Why did you decide to write this book and how long were you working on it? Ted Genoways: I first became aware of the case at the center of the book — the incident with the brain machine in Austin, MN — in 2008. I was a book editor in the Twin Cities years before and had worked on one book about the meatpackers’ strike at the Wilson & Co. plant in Albert Lea, MN, which is just down the interstate from Austin. I had also worked with another writer whose previous book was the history of the Hormel strike, so I knew a fair amount of the background. So it caught my eye when I heard about this incident with the workers there, and I had always been interested in the treatment of meatpacking workers in the first place because my grandfather had worked as a young man in the stockyards and later in the packing houses around the union stockyards in Omaha. I started reaching out to some editors and asking if it could be a magazine story. Everyone wanted to know what the angle would be. Yes, the workers have gotten sick, but what’s the angle? In researching, I saw two things early on that formed the central question of the book. One was an early interview with Dan Lachance, the doctor who treated the workers in the Quality Pork Processors plant, who said he had done these interviews with the workers and the main question he asked each of them was, “What conditions have changed inside the plant that would lead to a sudden outbreak?” What he heard again and again was line speed — the speed of the line just kept increasing. That was the main change. The other thing I saw doing this research was all these articles in 2007 and 2008 about this remarkable boom in the demand for Spam because of the economic downturn. This was always the case with Spam — this is a recession product, created during the Great Depression. The periods of the most increased sales were always during recessionary periods. That struck me as interesting. I started talking with Clara Jeffrey, my editor at Mother Jones, about line speed. In the case of the illnesses that broke out among the workers in Austin, that was an unintended consequence of speed, but at the same time there are knowable consequences of speed increases for workers. Predictably, when you make the line go faster and don’t otherwise change the system that you’re operating, you can expect there to be an increase in repetitive stress injuries, an increase in traumatic injuries such as cuts and amputations, and, on the other side of things, a decrease in food safety because there’s less inspection for each carcass and less time to properly dress and clean each carcass. That became the central question: What was the effect of line speed increases up and down the supply chain? Before long, I discovered that not only were Hormel’s line speeds fast, they were uniquely fast. When the government started experimenting and fully implemented the experimental HIMP program between 2002 and 2004 to see what the effects of decreased inspection and increased line speeds would be, Hormel got all three of its cut-and-kill operations into the group of five plants where this would be tested. I suddenly realized that Hormel as a company was the perfect case study for examining what we’d be looking forward to industry-wide if this potential change was allowed to be expanded to all pork companies and not just Hormel. So, from there it became a question of just trying to follow the supply chain in all directions and see what was happening. Everywhere I went, everyone I talked to said that they were seeing increases in speed of production and seeing problems with their particular link in the chain. And, almost as intriguingly, everyone was surprised to hear that other links in the chain were experiencing problems. Everyone’s so segmented and removed from other parts of the supply chain that they were under the impression that they were the ones experiencing stress while others were creating the demand. Instead, it’s a top-down artificial creation where the company itself was saying, “We want more output to drive down prices and artificially stimulate demand.” All parts of the supply chain just have to accommodate because of contracting, because of the arrangements that they have. FSN: Over the course of a few years, the line speeds in those Hormel plants rose from around 900 hog heads per hour to more than 1,300 — almost a 50-percent increase. That’s due to allowances from the HIMP program, which we cover pretty frequently at Food Safety News. Could you talk about your opinion of the HIMP program in some more detail — at what point do you say the line speeds are just too fast? TG: My book is essentially a 300-page investigation into whether or not the line speeds are too fast. At the end of it, I don’t come away seeing a benefit for anyone other than the people who are running Hormel — the executives and the stockholders. I suppose Hormel would also argue that the consumers are receiving cheaper meat, but I would say that the consequences for the consumer in terms of the quality of the food, environmental impact, and community issues make it a net negative for consumers. Yes, I think the line speeds are too fast. When you see the workers on the line say the speeds are too fast, the inspectors say the lines are too fast, the suppliers at the farm level say the lines are too fast, there’s such a unanimity of opinion that I don’t think you can come to any other conclusion. That’s what I find not just confusing, but frankly appalling, with the USDA’s defense of the HIMP program. You look at the USDA’s own Office of Inspector General’s report, the Government Accountability Office’s study of the program, they really all conclude that this program has been a failure on every level. And you have to bear in mind they’re only looking at the food-safety side of things. They’re not even looking at worker safety or environmental impact or community impact. Just from a food-safety perspective, their own internal investigations are saying that this is a problem, and yet [the USDA’s] official report says that there isn’t a problem, that we should be allowed to take the next step toward expanding the program. The Government Accountability Office has just gotten a set of inspectors to go on record about what they’ve seen inside of HIMP plants for pork. If you bear in mind that there are five HIMP pork plants and each has three on-line inspectors, that means there are 15 inspectors total, and they’ve gotten four to go on record talking about what a disaster this is. It’s a pretty sizable percentage, considering these are people who have a lot to lose if they’re identified. To have that many people willing to come forward and say that this is not what the USDA presents it as, I think what you’re seeing is a program that is just not good from a food-safety, worker-safety or environmental-safety perspective. But it is such an advantage for industry, and industry exerts such an influence over the USDA, that the USDA is doing everything it can to make this program look good when the data just don’t support that conclusion. FSN: When you see reports from the USDA like the one in November saying that the safety and quality of pork from HIMP plants was equivalent to similar non-HIMP plants, how do you interpret that? TG: Well, of course, there are no comparable operations in terms of speed and scale because that’s what they’re testing, so that in itself is problematic. If you look at the way the numbers were calculated, it’s really something. The program was officially implemented in 2002, but they didn’t start collecting data until several years into the program, saying that the plants were still getting their legs under them in the first years. They weren’t getting the numbers they wanted at all when they were supposed to be reporting and adjusting, and they just weren’t doing any of that as had been the agreement. They had one year where they finally said they were going to come up with a different way of accounting, and the numbers for that year weren’t included at all, even after they completely changed the way they calculated numbers and accounted for food-safety risks. Finally, they achieved one year where they had HIMP plants showing that they were catching food-safety issues just barely outside the margin of error, and they pointed to that year and said, “See? It’s a success. We’re ready to expand it.” We’re talking about a single year out of 12 years. I think anyone who looks at that objectively has to say — as the GAO did — that these data are not being collected consistently and not being analyzed in the same way from year to year. There’s just not a fair accounting of the effectiveness of this inspection program. The obvious question to me seems to be that if the program is effective, why would they have to keep manipulating the numbers? To hear from the inspectors that they feel the USDA is manipulating the numbers to get the results they want, I think there needs to be an independent study of the data that’s been collected and a period of further study if they’re going to allow the program to continue. In my mind, there’s more than enough information there to say it just isn’t working and this isn’t a good idea. As I continually come back to, this is all just looking at food-safety issues and not even talking about worker safety and environmental safety. When you layer those issues on top, I just don’t see how you can make an argument for this program. FSN: Let’s talk about those food-safety issues in more depth. In your own words, you say the book is “an attempt to calculate the true cost of cheap meat.” What do you see as the main costs related to food safety and consumer health? TG: The number-one thing that’s clear from the inspector affidavits and the records of food-safety violations that I got with the help of Food & Water Watch, you’re talking about fecal contamination, urine, bile, hair, intestinal contents, diseased animals, toenails — you name it. All of this is ending up in the meat because the government has handed inspection largely over to the plants in the pilot program to police themselves. You have a quality-assurance officer who is trained in HIMP protocols, but is paid directly by the company, and the company offers them bonuses for keeping the number of off-line minutes low for addressing food-safety issues. As some of the quality-assurance auditors have told me, they’re also facing pressure from supervisors who are telling them that there will be consequences if the line stops. I don’t think it should be any surprise that anything that they think is passable, they let go. I don’t mean “passable” in terms of the actual standards, I mean “passable” in terms of what they think they can get away with. The USDA inspectors are regularly seeing carcasses that shouldn’t be approved getting approval, and they have to pull them out. The USDA says that’s evidence that their inspectors are doing their jobs and the process is working, but those inspectors will tell you that it’s really evidence that there are way more carcasses being approved than if those positions were occupied by government-trained inspectors. Many of these carcasses that are being found are referred to as “stumble-upon findings” — cases where the inspectors are not specifically positioned to inspect and catch a food-safety issue, but they just happen to see something and pull it out. What that indicates is that there are most certainly carcasses getting through that are not meeting food-safety standards established by the government. The numbers offered by the USDA are showing the HIMP plants as being within the same margin [of safety] as the standard plants. But when you look at something that’s a very small percentage and you say they’re within 1 or 2 percent, when you start calculating the fact that they’re running 1,300 carcasses an hour and they’re running sometimes double shifts, maybe triple shifts, you’re talking about whole carcasses being approved each day that are getting through to commerce [when they shouldn’t]. If you just look at the USDA’s own numbers, the estimates are somewhere in the range of 2 tons of pork each day that are coming out of Hormel plants alone being approved for sale when it should have been condemned. To me, that’s an unbelievable number, and frankly, I’m amazed the public is not more up in arms about it. When you talk about 2 tons of meat going out around the country every single day, the number of illnesses resulting from that sort of contamination — I think there’s probably a very high number that is simply never detected.