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.

grocery game changer: wal-mart enters the organic market

Wal-mart announced last week that it would partner with Wild Oats to offer a low-cost line of organic products. Wild Oats was one of the first health food stores on the scene in the 1980s and was subsequently bought out by Whole Foods, who later dropped the line. 


The Wal-mart Wild Oats line intends to be at least 25% cheaper than other national organic brands and will be rolled out first in about half of Wal-mart stores. Most public health advocates and business analysts are hailing this announcement as a really good thing, since Wal-mart is the largest grocery chain in the country and as such has real power over influencing national food trends. It will give a new segment of Americans access to organic food at prices they can more realistically afford, and it’s thought that long-term, this can drive down the prices of organic raw materials for these pantry products. 

Many people believe this will push producers to commit long-term to organic farming practices in order to be a supplier for Wal-mart/Wild Oats. That’s a good thing for America’s land too, since more of it will be farmed with organic practices than what’s being currently done.

Because it takes three years for USDA organic certification, in order to have enough product to meet the demand that carrying these products in 2,000 Wal-mart stores (half of their American footprint) will create, people have speculated that they have been working on this behind the scenes since 2011. Wal-mart certainly will need absolute control over its supply chain in order to meet the demand and offer the “rock bottom prices.” Many analysts are speculating that that supply chain will extend more and more overseas, which they won’t have to disclose. 

I’m all for more land being farmed organically and certainly for more people having access to organic food – both physical and financial access. But I’m cautious about my excitement, since typically when Wal-mart enters a game, the rules change. It’s got tremendous market power and influence, which often means smaller, local producers are shut out, something Wal-mart is well known for.

In a situation where demand for organic foods in this country already is much higher than the supply, I have a feeling that the definition of “organic” is about to be up for debate soon. There will be great pressure to weaken federal standards for organic products, which companies are constantly lobbying for in the first place. Wal-mart will now have a vested profit interest in weakening the definition of “organic.” A vested profit interest by Wal-mart has never been really good news for anyone, so it will be interesting to see when the first wave of backlash comes from this.


online petitions – effective tool or just armchair activism?

In the age of social media, online petitions were almost inevitable. What better way to marshal support for a cause than to use social media to push the agenda, in hopes that it go viral?

I’ve signed a few online petitions before, mostly related to food issues. But does that really accomplish anything, or is it just armchair activism – an easy way to assuage our uncomfortable feelings about whatever the injustice is that the petition aims to combat?

Petitions that are sponsored and/or backed by advocacy groups are more likely to have legs. That is, they are using a collection of signatures to advance their already existing lobbying efforts. These groups exist outside of social media and have at least some power to get issues in front of legislators. 

But what about the petitions that are just started by a random person with an issue? I’ve been emailed petitions to sign to save just about every animal species under the planet, to take every ingredient out of every processed food, to make dolls and toys for kids of all shapes and sizes. (Recently, a White House petition to deport Justin Bieber received enough responses that the White House will have to issue a response.) 

A lot of these issues are good causes that I support in theory. But a lot of them are slightly misguided. For instance, the petition to take artificial colors out of M&Ms so as to not expose children to those chemicals doesn’t make any sense to me, since children really shouldn’t be eating any M&Ms at all, or at least not enough to make a difference. It’s worse to be exposed to those chemicals through the processed foods kids eat at every meal. So why try to get companies to change already unhealthy products to still unhealthy products? 

Shouldn’t we be petitioning the FDA and USDA to help us get chemicals out of our food supply, as opposed to individual companies? Consumers can also choose to not purchase M&Ms if they aren’t happy about the ingredients. If you don’t like the ingredients in Subway’s bread, don’t eat at Subway and if you choose, let people know why you don’t. But most Americans can’t go completely off-grid and stop buying their basic food supplies at grocery stores. So shouldn’t we be petitioning the government to make our general food supply safe and not just asking for one specific product to remove a specific ingredient?

I think it makes people feel like they are involved in activism when they share petitions and stories on social media. And really, they are. It’s a good thing to spread information and raise awareness, and I take part in that myself on a regular basis. But before you sign online petitions and expect them to make a difference, really think about whether or not that petition has a likelihood of affecting change, or if there’s a better way to go about it. 

Asking Subway to change its bread isn’t going to do anything to reform our food system. Take the time you would spend on online petitions and contact your legislators or write a response when legislation or FDA/USDA rules are up for public comment. Spread those messages on social media. It’s awareness of the scope of the real issues in our food supply that will ultimately make a difference.

book review: Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter

I added this book to my list of reads after I realized that the author is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization I follow quite closely. I was expecting it to contain about the same types of information that I usually find in books about the food movement. Interesting and informative, but not much new.

Well, I was wrong. Foodopoly did have some familiar themes, but the level of research and explanation in this book blew me away. Hauter’s main argument is that while focusing on changing consumer behavior and “voting with your fork” is important and has its benefits, no large scale change will happen without complete reform of the faulty industrial, corporate-controlled agriculture system that we have now. 

What this book does really well is explain how we got to where we are, and what the factors are that contribute to it staying this way (and getting worse). I expected a book with such an extensive and thorough notes section to be dry, and while it did take me longer to read than some other food books, it’s because there was so much information to absorb. 

Reading Foodopoly really hammered home for me how much of a privilege it is to be able to buy food from local farmers, living in an urban area where many farmers are able to make a living by providing food direct to consumer. I was reminded that many small and mid-size farms across the country do not have direct-to-consumer sales as an option, and are forced to grow commodity crops where they are paid less than the cost to produce and to work within monopolistic corporate systems. 

This book covers antitrust laws through this country’s history and the impact that deregulation has had on food and farming in America. Though I knew that many organic producers have been taken over by giant food conglomerates and that only a handful of corporations control all sectors of our food chain, reading Hauter’s logical explanations of what happens behind the scenes makes you realize that this country has allowed business to be the watchdogs of our public health and welfare.  

Foodopoly also covers genetic tinkering – not just genetic engineering of plants and animals, but synthetic biology and the groups that are trying to use government money to actually create life for profit. Here as in other places in the book, compelling evidence and meticulous research support her arguments. 

The only thing I felt this book lacked was a “now what” at the end. I was waiting for a chapter on practical ways to support the kind of large scale political movement she describes, especially after the book fired me up so passionately about moving beyond just supporting our CSAs and avoiding processed foods, etc. I do have a goal to write to my legislators more often this year, and I’ll continue to try to read up on legislative and judicial instances where public comment is needed. If you’re looking for research and facts to back up the feeling that our system needs to be fixed and not just consumer behavior, Foodopoly is a fantastic place to start.