(This is Part 2 of an interview with journalist and author Ted Genoways. Part 1 is here.) 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.) Part 1 of the interview focused on food-safety concerns related to increasing line speeds at pork processing plants. In part 2, Genoways discusses pork farming and ways he feels it can be done that prioritize food safety and well-being for both workers and animals. Food Safety News: When you write about the food system for long enough, you’ll hear a fair share of criticism such as, “You’re a writer. You’re not a farmer or a food producer, so it’s easy to critique food producers when you’re not the one trying to provide food to a large number of people in an affordable way.” Do you hear that criticism, and do you have a response to it? Ted Genoways: I do hear that criticism. I think I’m a little bit insulated from it. I live in Nebraska, so it’s not like I’m living in Berkeley and don’t ever see a pig on the hoof. At this point, I’m friends with the people who I buy my beef and pork from, and I spend a good deal of time with people in animal agriculture and who are crop farmers, so I hear the issues all the time. I know people who have been in extremely industrialized animal production, and I know people who are raising animals that are animal-welfare approved and certified organic. I’ve seen all different kinds of operations, and these are really the people who make up my circle of friends here in Nebraska. I’m not a farming member, but I am also a member of the Nebraska Farmer’s Union. I go to the meetings and hear all these issues debated from all sides and have plenty of time to sit and talk with people and try to understand anything I don’t know well. It’s my attempt in every case to try to see things from the perspective of the people who I’m writing about. There have been some people who have been upset that my book isn’t harder on the people who were abusing animals in Iowa, or not harder on the people who have been over-fertilizing fields and leading to waterway concerns. My feeling is that everybody feels absolutely pushed to the limit in the overall system that’s been created here, and everybody’s looking for the small advantage that will make things a little bit easier. I think it’s completely understandable and even sympathetic that someone would do something that they know they shouldn’t do — and don’t want to do — but feel they have to do in order to keep themselves and their families afloat. In those circumstances, I don’t feel it’s right to be putting the pressure and condemnation on those people. It’s the people who established the system and maintain the system who are to blame. I’ve done readings from the book where I’ve had people come up to me and say — I had one guy who was a supervisor at a pork-processing plant who came up to me and said, “I’m one of the guys in the book who’s there yelling at the workers on the line to work faster and telling them that they can’t have breaks. And you know why I’m doing that? Because there’s somebody yelling at me. There’s always somebody behind you putting the screws to you.” To me, that’s the story of the industry right now. That’s why I wanted to try to approach it from a whole supply chain perspective — to recognize that when somebody at the top says the line has to run faster, that puts the screws to everybody in the entire system. When people are working too fast, being asked to do things they don’t think are right, you get all kinds of bad results. That’s why I think the solution is government regulation and putting pressure on the companies to behave better. I don’t think the solution is less regulation and letting the market decide because we’ve tried that and it does not work. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying we want a few common-sense rules that protect the consumer, the workers, and the communities where these hogs are being raised and processed. Just that much. Just make sure the people who are directly affected have some say in the process. FSN: The book starts off with the story of George Hormel (pronounced HOR-mel) and the founding of the company as George A. Hormel & Co. in 1891. It’s passed down to his son, Jay Hormel, and after Jay it evolved into what is now the Hormel Foods Corporation (pronounced Hor-MEL). The book implies that the company seems to have lost its way a bit in the way it seems to have prioritized maximizing profits to the detriment of worker compensation and safety, as opposed to George’s and Jay’s more worker-focused business style. Do you think that progression is a sign of the times and the competitive atmosphere in the industry — you need to shift the focus to profits in order to compete — or do you think that someone like George Hormel could start a successful pork company today and stay true to his original vision? TG: That’s a great question. I think it’s both a sign of the times and it’s also not inevitable. It’s easy to say we have to do whatever we can to keep up with our competitors, but that assumes the consumer only has one value system: low cost. It assumes that every company has to compete for that same interest. The reality is that there’s a growing body of consumers who are interested in high-quality food, animal welfare, worker welfare, environmental impact, and are willing to pay a premium in order to feel that their money is going toward producers who share those values. I think that’s especially true as people are finding that the premium is not nearly as high as the industry has led us to believe. The argument has been that they have to do it this way in order to pass the savings on to you. The reality is that these big companies have been posting record profits for years and the savings have not been passed on to the consumer. It’s really being passed on to the shareholders. As the executives are paid in stock holdings and proceeds that come from the stock price rising, there’s a real self-interest there for the executives to say that what’s good for the stockholders is good for the company. I’m not sure that’s true. It’s certainly not true for the large body of people who work for the company and live in the communities. I think that has caused a lot of companies to lose their way. Niman Ranch is certainly an example of what is possible to, say, instead of controlling every part of the supply chain and capture every penny of profit to be made, to say let’s assemble a consortium of small producers who share core values and are willing to have everyone profit along the way. Everyone maybe profits a little less than they might under a corporate system, but everybody feels better about the product they’re putting out. I see more and more companies like that cropping up everywhere. I mentioned I’m friends with producers here in Nebraska. They just formed a consortium called Lone Tree Foods that is aimed at trying to get small producers together because the constant problem that grocery stores and restaurants complain about is that there’s not a steady supply when you’re dealing with small producers, especially when you’re talking about animals that should be raised seasonally. How do you deal with the inconsistent supply? Part of the answer is that you start thinking of your neighbor who agrees with your value system about how you treat animals, and you start thinking of your customers as your neighbors instead of the global marketplace, you can all work together and benefit together. The Internet has played a really positive role in the direct marketing of meat. It’s much easier now than it was for small producers even a decade ago. It’s easier to find and stay in touch with consumers once you’ve got a Facebook page that lets them know when you’ve got supply and where people can find it and that sort of thing. I can say from my own limited experience, admittedly in an ag-producing state, that it is incredibly easy here to get beef and pork — poultry’s a little trickier, but still possible — from people who you can talk to and from places where you can go see the animals, if you want that level of involvement. The same goes for a lot of other byproducts — dairy, cheese, vegetables in season. I think that a lot of the smaller producers have figured out that if they get their direct-marketing right and reach out to consumers, it can be as easy for people as going to the grocery store. When you’ve taken away the difficulty of getting the product you want, and you discover the price differential is not huge, people really start buying with their values instead of buying with their pocketbook. I see really positive things happening. FSN: You were getting some input from the people at Quality Pork Processors who process pork for Hormel. Have you heard any reactions about the book from company representatives of Hormel or QPP since publication? TG: Not really. There was a very mild letter from the American Meat Institute (AMI) complaining that I had blurred the line between HACCP and HIMP too much in the book. [Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) is a management system for addressing food-safety risks in a production environment. The HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) is the experimental inspection program being tested in three plants that supply Hormel pork and two other pork processing plants.] When the letter came in, I talked to my editor and said, “Look, HACCP is the protocol; HIMP is the implementation program for the protocol. One is really part of the other.” The thing that they were concerned about is that I say the AMI, at the prompting of Hormel, had pushed for HACCP to be adopted and eventually they pushed for HIMP. Their objection was that they had not pushed for HIMP as the HACCP inspection model, but they pushed for the USDA to pass a HACCP-based inspection model. They sent to the USDA seven requests, and when the USDA passed HIMP and implemented the pilot program, they specifically said they made sure that all of the requested items had been included. So, they got exactly what they asked for. My obvious question was that if they’ve asked for these specific things to be implemented and they have been implemented, I’d think the AMI would be happy to claim ownership of the program. But that brief exchange right when the book came out has really been the extent of things. FSN: What about some of the sickened or injured workers you profile in the book? Are you still speaking with any of them? TG: Many have left meatpacking either because they’re just not able to do the work anymore or because of concerns about immigration crackdowns that sort of started in these towns and ran most rampantly from 2008 to 2010. People have scattered. But the people I’m still in contact with are still sick. Many are still unable to work or unable to work full-time. Some of the sickest have returned to Mexico. and I don’t know what their circumstances are or what their future will really be. They essentially went to be in the care of family members. I don’t know to what extent they’ll be able to get the medical care that they need. I have heard much more from the people who were the advocates — the union leaders, people who worked against the immigration ordinance in Fremont [Nebraska]. The reaction has all been positive to the book, but these have been long fights and a lot of people have gotten kind of worn out. A number of people who fought hardest against the ordinance in Fremont, for example, don’t live in Fremont anymore and have simply said they’re going to change communities. [In 2010, the city of Fremont approved an ordinance that requires home renters to swear they are legal U.S. citizens.] I think that the outcome has been pretty tough for a lot of the people directly involved. My hope is that there will be good things to come out of this. The Government Accountability Project has not only collected the affidavits from meat inspectors, they’ve started a petition drive to call on Hormel directly to regulate its own line speeds if the government will not. I hope that if some of these efforts do come to fruition — if there’s a congressional hearing on HIMP for pork as there was for poultry, if there’s consumer pressure on Hormel — that if it doesn’t have a positive impact for the people who have already been affected, maybe it will at least do some good for the people who are still working on the line or will some day work on the line. FSN: You seem to have had significant background knowledge on the food system and meatpacking before you started working on the book, but how did your perspective on the food system evolve or change over the course of writing the book? TG: I had background in what agriculture used to be like. As I said earlier, my grandfather was a meatpacker and farmer. But my dad got out of farming as soon as he possibly could, and so while we spent time around other family members who were farmers and kept in touch, I didn’t fully understand how much agriculture had changed — especially during the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was somewhat of a shock to me to see just how industrialized everything has become, but that also helped explain a lot of the things that I had seen but not really understood. Most notably, the disappearance of small agricultural towns. As the industry has become more mechanized and more computer-operated, it’s less reliant on human beings. That has pushed people out of rural communities, and, of course, if you don’t have those people, you don’t have a customer base to support a restaurant or a gas station or a grocery store. For all of the romance and rhetoric surrounding “Real America” and “Small Town America” and “Supporting Main Street,” what I saw was that the companies that have really tried to industrialize to maximize for production and profit have done so at the expense of people who lived in communities like this and were the lifeblood of those communities. That has certainly changed my perspective a great deal. What it’s made me hope for is a system that is connected enough that it is able to meet the demands of our growing population, but not so top-down dictated that the people who work in the food system are just serfs in a feudal network. Instead, there can be something where the farmers have some say in how they raise our food. I agree with the farmers that they know better than anyone else, but the reality is that right now their methods are largely dictated by people who are making decisions in board rooms. FSN: Do you eat much pork these days? TG: I do still eat pork. I’d say that the biggest change is that I know where my pork comes from these days. Last Friday night, I had dinner with the guy who raises our beef and the guy who raises the pork we’re currently eating. The biggest change for me and my eating habits has been getting to know the people who raised the animals and to be a little bit involved in that process. Larry Stec, who runs Erstwhile Farm in Columbus, NE, where we got our most recent pig, they’re animal-welfare approved but not USDA-certified organic. The reason they’re not certified organic is because the hog houses they use — and have used for years — are treated lumber, which does not keep with USDA standards. Larry is of the opinion that it is foolish and wasteful to get rid of hog houses and build them with untreated lumber just to get organic certification. His opinion — and I think he’s right — is that he knows enough of his consumers that he can say, “We raise all our pigs according to organic protocols, but because of this one issue that we’re still working out, it’s not certified as organic. If that’s important to you as a consumer, here are some other people you can buy from. If you trust us, we’ll be glad to bring you a pig.” I think what getting to know producers has done for me is I’ve recognized that even the best government certification programs are filled with things that are rather arbitrary, and rather than relying on the label on a package, my approach has been to be buying from a farmer whenever possible. In my freezer, we’ve got pork from Erstwhile Farm and TD Niche Pork and from Hamilton Heritage Farms. To me, it means a lot to be able to develop relationships with these folks, to know how their businesses are doing, and for us as buyers being part of the community and network that’s trying to support what they’re doing. It means being a lot more aware of what you’re putting in your mouth, but I don’t think that’s a bad standard to live by. FSN: You and the farmers must have pretty interesting dinner conversations thanks to this book. TG: I had a great time getting to talk with those guys and hear the two of them talking through some recent challenges, to hear how up on changes in governmental standards they are. But they’ve also worked with a number of different butchers and talking about places where they had gotten the best work done. As I say, it means something to be involved in the production of the food that you’re feeding to your family. I realize that not everybody has the time to make this a central focus, but as the small producers find ways to make it easier and more cost-effective, I think they’re on the right track. Meals like that one are really fun because they’re hopeful. What I hear are smart people figuring out complex problems and coming up with good solutions.