A scathing report on the consequences of factory farming.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the exploitation of immigrant workers in Chicago’s meatpacking industry and the shockingly filthy conditions in which meat was processed. Mother Jones contributing editor Genoways (Walt Whitman and the Civil War, 2009, etc.), winner of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, shows that little has changed in more than 100 years. The workers he focuses on are mostly Hispanic; the companies are those that breed, slaughter and process pigs. He looks particularly at Hormel, which invented, aggressively marketed and continues to manufacture Spam, the canned product that meets consumer demand for meat that is easy to prepare and, most important, cheap. It is the real cost of cheap meat that drives Genoways’ investigation: the cost in consumer health, worker safety, animal abuse, environmental contamination and community strife. Hormel’s meat processing, which the author describes in nauseating detail, depends on a workforce comprised mostly of undocumented immigrants: “thankful for their paychecks, willing to endure harsh working conditions, unlikely to unionize.” Those conditions worsened for workers eviscerating hog heads when Hormel increased line speed to more than 1,300 heads per hour. The heads piled up against a Plexiglass shield, cracking it and spattering pigs’ brains over the workers and into the air. In the next months, “an epidemic of neuropathy” spread among workers, leading, for many, to “permanent, irreversible damage.” Hormel and its many subsidiaries fought unionization; fought restrictions on the size, location and inspection of their facilities; and fought whistle-blowers who videotaped sows being mercilessly beaten. The company made an unexpected shift, however, allying itself with liberal protestors when communities mounted anti-immigration campaigns that would have decimated its cheap labor. The Food and Drug Administration was a direct consequence of The Jungle, but Genoways has found “systemic failure” in meat inspection that results in “an illusion of safety.”
The author tells a sad, horrifying story, a severe indictment of both corporate greed and consumer complacency.