book review: the chain

It’s been awhile since I reviewed a food book – awhile since I read a food book. I think that it’s almost like the feeling you get when you watch the news a lot, and you realize that the bad news is just a little bit too much. But when I saw many people in the food world talking about Ted Genoways’ The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of our Food online, I thought it was time to get back in the game. I’m disappointed that books like this even exist for me to read, but I am glad I picked this one up and am putting my toe back in the water. It’s not a good habit to just turn my face to truth because it’s too hard to handle.

the chainThe art on the cover of The Chain is compelling and accurate. The pig shown has its body cut into parts, so you can see “inside” where the pig is filled with cogs and sprockets – the mechanics of a factory. While there are many books that detail the problems with factory farming, this book takes it down to the micro level and illustrates those larger problems by telling the story of two factories – one in Austin, Minnesota and the other in Fremont, Nebraska – that service Hormel by creating Spam – the ubiquitous hunk of gelatinous “pork product.”

Book after book and essay after essay have been written on the problems with factory farms, detailing their detrimental impact on the environment, animal welfare, public health and food safety. But The Chain is different by primarily focusing on the meat packing that happens at the two plants and tracing the problems backwards.

Because all large meat companies, such as Hormel and Smithfield, are now vertically integrated, they produce their own grain, to feed their own pigs, and they slaughter, package, ship and sell them. One compelling section details the work of undercover workers in a factory pig farm that services the Hormel meat processing plants, there to investigate inhumane treatment of animals and violation of regulations (and basic decency). State legislatures are increasingly being asked by industry to pass legislation that outlaws this type of recording and whistle-blowing, collectively referred to as Ag-gag laws (For some background, this is not new. I wrote about this in April 2013).

Genoways interviews Amanda Hitt from the Government Accountability Project, and her comments are too good to paraphrase (p. 39):

Ag-gag laws, as they’re know, don’t just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. “You are also stopping environmental whistle-blowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistle-blowing.’ In short, ‘you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate.” That should “scare the pants off” consumers concerned about where their food comes from. “It’s the consumer’s right to know, but also the employee’s right to tell. You gotta have both.” She said she couldn’t believe that an industry that had been to regularly recorded breaking the law “would then have the audacity to come to any state legislative body and say, ‘Hey, we’re sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do a favor and criminalize catching us?'” Amanda Hitt, Government Accountability Project

Ag-gag laws are just one of the ills that Genoways mentions – sections on water pollution and the fight of small towns to have their watersheds protected from contaminated manure lagoons as well as horrifically abused animals are both fascinating and horrifying. And the book is carefully and meticulously researched, with an extensive notes section and an index – one of the marks of good non-fiction.

But the thing that sets The Chain apart is its focus on people. The people who work at the Hormel plants in Austin and Fremont and what it does to them and what it does to the surrounding communities. It is truly heartbreaking that we pollute clean water, abuse animals who are dependent on us for their care, and expose workers to horrific working conditions for near poverty wages – all for something like Spam. Spam, people.

The section that detailed a mysterious illness that plagued workers at one particular plant actually made me sick to my stomach. Workers at a table that sucked out the pig’s brain matter with high pressure hoses had to work at such high speeds, that a cloud of brain matter always hovered over the table, because the matter never had a chance to settle before more was introduced. That’s right. A cloud of brain matter. Without proper safety equipment (that encumbered workers too much for them to keep up with the company-mandated line speed), workers inhaled the brain matter of the pigs daily for hours upon hours. It gave them nerve diseases that stripped their nerves of the sheaths that protect them, making it virtually impossible for them to stand or move without excruciating pain.

The fight for workers’ compensation and for the company to acknowledge these abuses is sickening. Workers were permanently disabled with their quality of life forever diminished for something like $10/hour if they were lucky. On my worst day in my cubicle job, I can’t even begin to comprehend what working on the kill floor or the butchering line would be like at a meat processing plant.

Why could Hormel (and other companies that have similar problems) get away with this? Having destroyed the unions that supported the workforce for decades, the companies rely on a workforce of primarily immigrant labor. No matter where you stand on the side of immigration reform or law, the situations created in these communities are no good for anyone involved. The workers and communities that are at odds against them are both under the same boot that’s pressing down on them – the corporate interests of companies who have free reign by government to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want.

I could go on for days. It was a great book. You should read it.

What I can’t seem to shake after reading it is the feeling that we so easily take horrifying abuses and problems and distill them to numbers. Commodities. We think of pigs as “pork” and not as animals, with the ability to feel pain and excitement and care and attachment. X number of chops and roasts. That’s it.

It would be easy to say that “only” X number of workers were affected by the nerve disease. But these aren’t just statistics. These are people. With faces and names and families. Hobbies and thoughts and dreams for a better life for their families – the same dream that all of us are working to reach. Does a human being, whether he/she has legal papers or not, deserve to inhale pig brain matter and suffer daily, agonizing pain, because the company increased the line speed so that we can eat more Spam than ever before? And so that Hormel can make increasingly more profit? Would the CEO of Hormel work at that same spot on the line, knowing what it’s done to people? I would venture to say no. Yet somehow, it’s okay to put someone else there. And leave them permanently disabled, physically and financially. Because that person isn’t a person. He’s a number. He’s a cog in a machine.

When you buy a package of Spam, or some Hormel bacon, you help that cog in the machine keep spinning. The machine doesn’t stop until we do.

  • http://runningonlentils.blogspot.com/ Jenn @ Running on Lentils

    The great capacity to cause pain and suffering to people, animals, and the environment in the interests of big business and making money is something that haunts me daily. I admire you for reading this book. The picture alone is upsetting. The only comfort I have is that there are people like you and organizations out there uncovering these awful things that are happening every day, and some people are paying attention. Not the majority, of course–the majority who purposefully put blinders on and don’t want to know the truth because they don’t want to change their ways. But maybe the “some” people will one day turn into a lot. I think even in the past five years there has been much more awareness and activism against these practices. Thank you for posting this.

    • Joanna Taylor Stone

      I agree – the tide is starting to turn as more and more people are becoming aware of these issues. But it’s slow, especially when companies are ready to come in with fancy marketing, making consumers believe that the meat they buy in the store is “humane” without any truth behind that label.

      People are quick to be upset when they see the videos that Ag-gag laws try to repress – and rightfully so – but they quickly forget about that when they want cheap meat and eggs.

      At the end of the day, I can’t make decisions for people on what to eat. But I want people to be empowered to make educated decisions about what’s behind that purchase – the animals, our clean water, the environment, public health and the people. Reading this book, my heart broke open for these people who are desperate for income to feed their families, working in these processing plants – but who are treated as worthless replacement parts by these companies. We treat the copier toner in my office better than the people who work on the line at these factories. For SPAM. Unbelievable.

      I had stopped writing about these issues a lot because it seemed I was preaching to the choir, but I have found my way back to it after reading this book. Thanks so much for reading this post.