American meat's disgusting secret: Why factory farms are even worse than you thought

Journalist Ted Genoways probes deep into the pork industry's horrific business plan

Published October 19, 2014 8:00PM (EDT)

   (AP/Paul Sakuma)
(AP/Paul Sakuma)

Fremont, Nebraska, 2004: Maria Lopez, a meat production line worker, gathers and bags fat trimmings while her co-worker slices pork shoulders. Struggling to keep up with the plant's accelerated assembly line, her fingers slip toward a spinning saw on her workspace -- she gets a bit too close; her reaction is a bit too slow. Lopez is rushed from the premises, her severed index finger reattached in a series of surgeries that leave her without feeling in the appendage. The drama keeps her out of work for two months -- and, when the plant's line speed is once again increased, convinces her to quit her job for good -- but the accident wasn't enough to bring production even to a pause. As journalist Ted Genoways describes it in his new book, "her coworkers were instructed by floor supervisors to wash the station of her blood, but the line never stopped."

What journalist Christopher Leonard recently did for Tyson and the chicken industry, Genoways, the former editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, does for pork, recounting the history of Hormel Foods -- the company responsible for introducing the world to Spam -- as it evolved from humble beginnings to an industrial giant with a nearly myopic focus on expansion and acceleration, regardless of the costs. And boy, are there costs: the bloody scenes with which Genoways opens the book; a mysterious neurological disorder linked to a machine that has workers breathing in a fine mist of pork brains; communities broiling with resentment over the influx of undocumented workers increasingly taking over this dangerous work; abuse suffered by the animals on whom workers' frustrations are instead taken out; and a decline in food safety that, unbelievably, is set to become the new industry standard.

Nation, this is what your appetite for cheap, standardized pork products has wrought.

Salon spoke with Genoways about "The Chain," his four-year investigation into the pork industry that takes its title from that never-slowing production line. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

To start off, I was really interested in the way you combine these meat safety issues with social issues, and the way they intersect at these pork plants. Was that your original intention?

Well, like so many of these things, it grew out of reporting on a single aspect of the story. Back in 2009 and 2010, I was interested in the story about the workers who had been affected by the neurological disorder that broke out in the plant in Austin, Minnesota. And when I was initially thinking of working on that, I was certainly interested in who the workers would be, but I didn't know going into it that almost all of the affected workers were Hispanic and many of them undocumented workers. And it was seeing that, and seeing how those issues seem to just kind of fan out in all directions, that I started thinking, you know, this is more than an article, this is more complex than can be embodied in a single piece. This is really a book.

You bring up Upton Sinclair, who criticized the public's response to "The Jungle" by saying they only cared about the gross stuff in their meat, much more than the mistreatment of immigrant workers, which was the other big thing he was trying to expose. Are you concerned about the same happening for your book?

I am. Sinclair's famous comment -- that he aimed for the public's heart and accidentally hit them in the stomach -- I think that's a concern that people who are interested in social justice for food workers continue to run into. Most recently, Eric Schlosser [of "Fast Food Nation"] has been very vocal about saying that people involved in the food movement need to be more cognizant of the plight of food workers, whether that's fast food workers or people who work in processing plants or farmworkers.

And so yes, it's definitely a concern, because I think it's much easier to get people concerned about what food they're putting on the table for themselves and for their families than it is to get them to think about the impact that that meal may be having on other people.

You focus on the immigration politics in this one town in Nebraska, showing how the industry was responsible for attracting this workforce that was easy to exploit. Does it seem to you, when you were there reporting, that most people understood the connection, that Hormel was the one creating this tension?

That's a tough question to answer, partly because I think that on the one hand, people in Fremont, and to a lesser degree in some of the other Hormel towns, recognize the forces that are bringing Hispanic workers into those communities. But at the same time, for some reason the anger that they feel tends not to be directed at Hormel or the other meatpackers, but instead at the workers themselves. And that's part of what makes the situation so complex, because it's my opinion that Hormel benefits from that, that industry in general benefits from a situation where workers are made to feel afraid to speak out and feel that they don't have community support, and essentially have to exist in the shadows. That allows them to benefit from a workforce that isn't going to complain about work conditions, isn't going to file workman's comp claims when they're injured and isn't going to push in the broader community for pressure to be brought on the company. So it's a really destructive dynamic, and really the only ones who benefit from that are the companies like Hormel.

Going back through Hormel's history, it starts out with very different intentions -- and what seem like much better intentions, especially for its workers -- than what it ended up devolving into. And you make the argument that this constant speeding up of the production process, this wanting to produce more and more, is responsible for that. Do you see any way going forward for them to reverse course?

Well, that's the central question, whether it's possible to convince large companies like this that there is benefit in trying to find a more sustainable model, which usually means slowing production, narrowing what they're trying to do commercially in favor of making a steady profit instead of this model of constant growth. The challenge, of course, is that constant growth is what capitalism is all about -- and it's not just what corporate heads want, but it's what investors want, it's what stockholders want. Hormel has been touted repeatedly over the last decade as one of these companies that's recession-proof, that continues to grow and thrive despite a down economy and despite fluctuations in the market. And this has become their brand in many ways: the company that continues to grow regardless of what else is happening. So it's difficult for me to imagine circumstances under which Hormel would feel sufficient pressure to rethink their model.

There's an interesting moment where a factory farm owner boasts that "factory farm" is a good label to have, including the use of hormones and antibiotics and all of what that indicates, because the end product is what people are demanding.

And that's just the thing, right? You're seeing the mentality where hog farming is being equated with any other sort of factory production, whether that's auto production or any other kind of manufacturing, and what it ignores, of course, is that there is something living. And that the only way that you end up with a system that can be fully mechanized and automated and streamlined is to have animals that are less and less individuals. And so there's selective breeding, which there's always been, but now all of the breeds have been narrowed down to a single hybrid hog that is selected for genetics and then also fed any number of antibiotics and other growth enhancers, to create a hog that grows fast and to a certain size and a certain proportion that can be delivered and is standard size when it enters that automated system at the packing plant. And to do all of that really does require that you stop thinking of yourself as a farmer, and that you really do think of this as a factory system.

When you write about some of these PETA and Humane Society exposés, where they come out with undercover video of animal abuse, there seems to be an argument there that the people who are eventually punished, the ones who are carrying out the abuse, are just playing into that system.

Dan Paden, who's at PETA, was the first one to say this, and it's in the book: He said that one of the shortcomings about these kinds of investigations are that people who are punished, if you are able to actually get to a legal punishment, they're people who are working long hours for minimum wage under dangerous conditions -- dangerous because the hogs are kept in circumstances that make them frightened and aggressive, dangerous because of the gas and the illness that is often contained inside the buildings that the workers suffer from. And unfortunately, what happens in these operations is that very often underpaid, frustrated, unwell workers are taking out all of those frustrations on animals. It doesn't excuse the behavior, but it also doesn't correct it. It doesn't address the system that is creating that pressure on the worker, and the problem is that even as there's been some movement toward prosecuting workers when there's video, there's been no movement toward prosecuting the owners who are responsible for maintaining and operating these facilities. And I think that's a problem.

In the time you were investigating this book, there's been a lot of push for Ag-Gag laws, for harder consequences for people who are trying to expose what's happening in factory farms. Did you feel that working against you a lot in your own research?

I think the main thing that I have encountered is that the magazines that I have worked for in writing some of the portions of this book along the way, and then the publisher, they've just been more alert and attentive to what those rules are, and how we work within that system. And then thankfully Mother Jones was eager to say, "Why don't we write something that addresses this directly, and not just be maneuvering around the guidelines, but actually address this problem as what it is, which is really a First Amendment issue." But there's no question that I think it casts a pall over this kind of reporting and has the kind of killing effect that the laws are created for: You have many publications that are concerned about the possibility of legal action who choose not to write about these subjects because they don't want to run that risk. And those that do are put in a position where they're sort of cautious about the material that they run and how they obtain it, and needing to know what all of the laws are in the states where they're working.

Again, I think it's a really severe problem, and it's something that I would personally like to see the courts take up, because I don't see how this is a constitutional set of laws that have been enacted and are still under consideration. The idea that you can curb people's First Amendment rights to observe, to report what they have seen -- that just seems to me completely antithetical to everything that this country is about.

It also seems like it would set these companies up for the more negative things that are being published about them -- you end up going into these investigations with a more antagonistic viewpoint.

This is one place where industry could absolutely do itself a favor, which is to just be more communicative and cooperative with people who are interested in the industry. And I think that also would require them to be more honest and self-critical. Because right now, their strategy is to be as sort of non-transparent and as silent on these issues as possible. And very often the strategy is: don't cooperate during any of the reporting, and then, when the piece appears, try to nitpick it in order to question its credibility, in hopes that people will be confused by those disagreements and throw their hands in the air and stop paying attention, and just keep shopping the way they've always shopped. To me, the industry would be better off to say, "There are a lot of things that we do well. There are a lot of things that we could do better. And we welcome a dialogue."

And you know, in unexpected places, the pressure is mounting enough -- it's fascinating, for me, to see a place like McDonald's say, "We're going to embrace more transparency in how we source and produce food that we sell." Whether that actually happens or not remains to be seen, but it is clear that the public's concern is starting to have an impact, if companies like that realize that they need to make that change.

I guess the other problem that arises from that is one of the things you point out in the book: You say, “it seems that we are not so much concerned with safety as promoting an illusion of safety.” There could be a lot more talk about what companies are already doing or are planning to do, instead of about what that means on a larger scale, or whether those things are actually effective.

Well, and that's where there's a role for the government also. I mean, the extent to which the Food Safety and Inspection Service in the USDA seems to be working hand-in-glove with the industry, I think is really kind of the root of the problem -- the relationship between the regulator and the regulated company just can't be as close as they've allowed it to grow. And so what you end up with is a situation very much like what Upton Sinclair complained about a century ago, where the rules are essentially written by the packers, for the benefit of the packers, and they're written in such a way to create this illusion of safety, and this illusion that everything is being very carefully inspected, when in fact those rules are really aimed at trying to increase production and just give the public a false sense of security.

So again, I think if everyone involved were willing to embrace just a touch more honesty about the process -- where it could be improved and where the areas of concern lie -- I think that the public would feel better, and I think that we would end up with better food. And I have to say, too, I don't think, in the long run, that this would cost these companies all that much in terms of overhead or lost time. I think the resistance to it is really just the oldest human instinct of resisting change, of resisting being told what to do. And I think it's going to take federal government involvement to drag the industry out of that mind-set and into the light, and into communication with consumers.

I'd like to talk a bit more about what drew you, personally, to this topic. I know your family goes way back in Nebraska, and that your grandfather worked in packing houses -- how has that informed your approach to the topic, and your relationship to the industry?

As you say, my grandfather as a young man worked in a Swift packing plant in Omaha, around the Union Stockyards there. And it certainly informs my view of things in terms of being concerned about how workers are treated. His whole life was in some ways built around trying to make sure that my father, when he reached that same age, would not have to do work like that. So I have a great sympathy for the workers who endure the hard work and the risks that meatpackers have always faced.

But I think the thing that, in addition to that, I guess I do bring to this is a sense of loss over the era of when a worker who got a job at a place like Hormel could get enough money to build a good, middle-class life for themselves and their families, to get a good education for their kids and for their kids to be able to move on to jobs that didn't involve working on the packing floor. And to me, the way that the system is built now is aimed at getting workers subdued and entrapped in these conditions, rather than presenting these positions as a stepping stone to something better. And no wonder, given that, that the relationship that they have with the union, the relationship that they have with the communities where they're housed, are no longer the warm, tight-knit relationships that they once enjoyed. I think that that's a loss for all of us. I would very much love to see the return of an era when blue-collar jobs were respected and well-paid and came with benefits and security. I don't think that's too much to ask.

By Lindsay Abrams

MORE FROM Lindsay Abrams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Factory Farms Food Pork Industry Ted Genoways The Chain Undocumented Immigrants