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.

Ag-gag update: constitutional challenge

It’s been awhile since I wrote about Ag-gag laws and their impact. (If you aren’t familiar with what they are, start here.) They’re back in the news again, after Idaho recently passed Senate Bill 1337, which makes it a crime punishable by imprisonment to photograph or videotape abusive, unsanitary or unethical activity on a farm. It was signed into law by Idaho’s governor on February 28, and Idaho is now the seventh state to have an active Ag-gag law.

Thankfully, a coalition of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Center for Food Safety, filed a federal lawsuit in mid-March challenging the bill’s constitutionality. In the coalition’s rationale for the lawsuit, they question journalists’ free speech and freedom of the press rights. They also highlight the fact that now, Idaho more severely punishes the person who exposes animal cruelty than the person who commits it.

These laws don’t protect animals or even human beings and public health. They protect industry. Which we obviously value in this country, the way we protect large corporations in every way imaginable. 

It’s also important to point out that no one is asking these companies to allow someone to set up cameras 24/7 to document what happens in a slaughterhouse. We know what happens in a slaughterhouse. Slaughter. And the adage is probably true on some level that if we watched what happens in a slaughterhouse every day, we might all be vegetarians. Transparency in food doesn’t mean we need to see every single second of an industry’s work – that’s just absurd. 

The big issue here is that whistleblower protection is necessary. The photos and videos that these laws try to exclude are ones that show the company overstepping its legal bounds, not to mention ethical ones. A worker should feel safe in coming forward with legal or ethical concerns and allowing a journalist to do his/her work in documenting such items. These bills make it difficult to even get the evidence to law enforcement to spark an investigation before the person would be arrested under the Ag-gag law. 

Other industries can learn to get along with whistleblower protections. Industries that take money from the government, such as healthcare facilities, all must value whistleblower protections. You can’t be retaliated against in any way for exposing fraud or ethical/legal concerns and you are protected by the full extent of the law. This exists to make sure government dollars, and by extension, tax payer dollars, are spent wisely. So why not industrial agriculture? With the amount of subsidies and tax benefits these corporations receive, their workers should receive the same whistleblower protections.

We should not have laws in this country that forbid our citizens from exposing corruption, fraud, cruelty and abuse. We can’t claim to be the greatest, most free society on earth if we don’t.      


Reading (and viewing) this week

I’ve written on GMO labeling before, and this is an issue that is constantly evolving and changing.
On Wednesday, we took another step forward as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) (otherwise known as my new heroes) with 9 Senate co-sponsors and 22 House co-sponsors, introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-To-Know Act that would require food manufacturers to label any product containing GMOs. If not properly labeled, the product could be classified by the FDA as “misbranded.”
It’s about time. I am working on drafting a letter to send to my legislators here in Pennsylvania, and when it’s ready, I will share so you can pass the word! 
Speaking of legislative advocacy, Ellen DeGeneres had a representative from the Humane Society on her show to talk about Ag-Gag laws. Ellen’s got a wide audience and huge following, not only for her general awesomeness but her advocacy work on the part of animals. I’m really happy to see someone like Ellen educating and encouraging people to take action.
Definitely looking forward to Mark Bittman’s new Flexitarian column. He says the goal is “to marry the burning question “What should I be eating?” with another: “How do I cook it?”
Michael Pollan talking to Stephen Colbert about his new book, Cooked
Yet more proof that eating antibiotics in meat is detrimental to our health: government researchers have found bacterial varieties in meat that are resistant to antibiotics.
Environmental Working Group has some great information on superbugs in meat.

Pennsylvania HB 683 – Open letter to my legislator

I’ve never written an original letter to my elected representatives before. I’ve sent form emails that other companies encouraged me to use, but I’ve never taken the time to write my own letter. PA’s House of Representatives convenes again next week, and I decided that I should contact my representative to let him know how I feel about House Bill 683 – PA’s proposed Ag-Gag law. My letter appears below. Feel free to use my letter or amend it to send to your representative. Don’t let this bill fly under the radar. (My husband wrote his own letter, and already received a response from our representative, who didn’t know what the bill was and wanted to learn more. He actually called him in person. Contacting your representatives matters.)


Dear Representative _______, 
My name is Joanna Taylor Stone, and I’m writing to express my vehement opposition to PA House Bill No. 683, regarding “the offense of interfering with agricultural operations,” sent to Judicial Review Committee in February 2013.
I work for a health system, and as part of my employment, I know that I am covered by whistleblower protections that exist to allow me to feel confident to report fraud or waste as it pertains to the use of government money. House Bill No. 683 would strip away whistleblower protections for workers in agricultural operations intending to document animal abuse and cruelty (animals that end up in our food supply), food safety violations, workplace violations or environmentally destructive practices. Even the transmission of this information would be outlawed, which does not encourage media outlets to be able to communicate this information to consumers.
We as citizens know that the best defense to libel is the truth. If an agricultural company has nothing to hide in its facilities, it shouldn’t matter if the daily operations are documented. Transparency leads to quality and safety in any industry, and that is especially the case for agriculture, as what we don’t know could kill us. Hidden camera investigations are one of the most useful tools in eliminating fraud and mistreatment. Consult any number of videos taken on farms right here in Pennsylvania and you will see that it is imperative that what goes on behind these closed doors is exposed for consumers to see. Only then can we make informed choices as to whether or not to support corporations who abuse animals, workers and the environment to achieve their profit margins.
As a resident of _____, you represent me in the PA House. One of the hallmarks of our democracy is the right to free speech. Ag-gag laws that attempt to silence those who would speak up and expose fraud and abuse are an egregious violation of that right.
I urge you to do what you can to oppose this bill and encourage your colleagues to do so as well. 
Thank you for your time,
Joanna Taylor Stone

Ag-Gag Undercover

Perhaps what I want the most from our industrial food system is transparency. I think if everyone knew how our food gets to us, and how the system works from the inside out, we would be able to stand up and demand more of these companies. 

But how do people know what is happening if it becomes illegal to show what goes on there by taking photographs or videos? How do we know what is happening when a worker would have to risk going to jail to expose the conditions in which he/she works? 

Laws are being considered by many states, Pennsylvania included, that would make it a crime to “interfere with agricultural operations” by taking still images or video recordings inside industrial agricultural facilities. Some of these laws would also make it a crime to share them, so media organizations would potentially face felony charges as well. They are called Ag-Gag laws, since they aim to silence anyone who tries to show the hard truth about what happens in these confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and industrial farms. 

No federal laws exist governing animal cruelty when it comes to agriculture, and any state laws are typically very weak (having been watered down by lobbyists from the industry). Finding no help in the law, many people take to hidden camera investigations and publish the findings, hoping to try the factory farms in the court of public opinion. 

In a country that zealously guards its rights to free speech, how can we consider punishing someone with felony charges for telling the truth? How can the federal government subsidize through the Farm Bill an industrial food system that isn’t open to public scrutiny and in fact does everything it can to keep its operations behind closed doors?

I recently came across this article in The Atlantic concerning Ag-Gag laws, by someone who took undercover footage while working at a pig farm right here in Pennsylvania. I followed the link to the video that the author published through Mercy For Animals. 

I’m going to be perfectly honest. I have seen documentaries and undercover footage from industrial farms before. It’s what got me to start considering the realities of what I was eating. But each time I see these videos, I have to pause them after a minute or two to close my eyes and wish I hadn’t seen it. Because once you see it, you can’t forget it. To think that we let this happen simply so we can buy cheap bacon.

I’ve embedded the video below. Watch what you can. Sadly, there are hundreds more just like it. 

The next time that you hear of an Ag-Gag law being proposed where you live, call your government officials and spread the word to anyone that will listen that we have to stand up to protect the truth.