[Marxism] Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 23 10:37:39 MST 2014

(Schlosser's review is good but he denigrates Upton Sinclair's call for 


‘The Chain,’ by Ted Genoways

Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food
By Ted Genoways
Illustrated. 305 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.

Every working day, tractor-trailers from Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota 
deliver about 30,000 hogs to a pair of slaughterhouses controlled by 
Hormel Foods. One of the plants is in Austin, Minn., the other in 
Fremont, Neb.; and both produce meat for the inexpensive, highly 
processed edible product known as Spam. In “The Chain: Farm, Factory, 
and the Fate of Our Food,” Ted Genoways describes in appalling detail 
what goes into that Spam. The ingredients on the label — pork with ham, 
salt, water, modified potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrite — may 
sound harmless. But Genoways argues that the industrial system behind 
those little cans is inextricably linked to a variety of social 
problems: animal cruelty, water pollution, food-borne illness, worker 
exploitation, a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, government corruption 
and largely unchecked corporate power. Once celebrated with some irony 
by Monty Python, “lovely Spam, wonderful Spam” looms as a sinister force 
in “The Chain,” a hidden source of misery in the nation’s heartland.

The strongest and most memorable sections of the book explore how poor 
immigrant workers are treated only somewhat better than the hogs at a 
Hormel slaughterhouse. A food movement has recently gained much 
popularity in the United States, demanding new forms of agriculture that 
are local, organic and sustainable. But that movement has thus far shown 
greater interest in animal rights than in the human rights of the 
workers who produce America’s food. Groups like People for the Ethical 
Treatment of Animals have many celebrity supporters, while the 
impoverished meatpacking workers of Fremont and Austin have almost none. 
Genoways depicts the lives of these workers with great skill and 
compassion. Those who remain healthy are driven to cut meat at 
ever-increasing speeds; the injured are harassed, bullied and forced out 
of their jobs. “I feel thrown away,” one worker says. “Like a piece of 

A decade ago, I spent time with meatpacking workers in Colorado, Texas, 
Nebraska and Washington State. They worked in beef slaughterhouses — and 
yet Genoways’s contemporary stories of abuse in Hormel’s hog plants 
sound remarkably familiar: Recent immigrants recruited to subvert unions 
and reduce wages. Undocumented immigrants living in fear, reluctant to 
report violations of the labor code. A packinghouse culture full of 
stress and danger and remarkably free of mercy.

Although beef slaughterhouses have higher rates of injury than hog 
plants, “The Chain” reveals a workplace menace I’d never heard of: 
“progressive inflammatory neuropathy.” It’s an autoimmune disease whose 
symptoms include pain, fatigue, headaches, nausea, numbness of the limbs 
and partial paralysis. The cause of the disease was mysterious at first 
but later attributed — by investigators from the Mayo Clinic, the 
Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and 
Prevention — to an unusual industrial practice. As Genoways explains, 
“Someone up the chain of command, someone at Hormel, had found a buyer 
in Korea, where liquid pork brains are used as a thickener in stir-fry.” 
To meet the overseas demand, workers used compressed-air hoses to 
liquefy hog brains, standing at the “head table” for eight hours or more 
each day, inhaling a fine pink mist. Once it seemed clear that inhaling 
this mist could produce neurological damage in human beings, the 
machines were shut off. But the workers affected by the new disease had 
to fight for medical benefits. And some of those too sick to continue 
working got financial settlements only by threatening to sue. “After 
attorneys’ fees,” Genoways notes, “each received $12,500, a half-year’s 

A book like “The Chain” may induce smugness among lifelong vegetarians. 
And yet the migrant workers who harvest America’s fresh fruits and 
vegetables earn wages even lower than those of meatpacking workers and 
also suffer debilitating injuries on the job. A healthy, virtuous diet 
is still dependent on a work force vulnerable to wage theft, sexual 
harassment and even slavery in the fields. Although “The Chain” is 
ostensibly about the hog industry, it offers insight into the 
transformation of America’s political culture in the late 20th century. 
Monopolies and monopsonies began to thrive, as antitrust laws went 
unenforced. Unions were broken through clever legal subterfuges. 
Middle-­class wages became poverty wages. Government regulations were 
usurped by the industries supposedly being regulated. And elected 
officials became the servants of corporate interests, not the public 
interest, to an almost comical degree. As fecal material from the 
industrial hog farms of Iowa — a volume of waste greater than that 
produced by the entire human population of Brazil — polluted the state’s 
water supply, its governor responded by eliminating 100 jobs at the Iowa 
Department of Natural Resources, appointing a lawyer with strong 
agribusiness ties to run the agency and naming a hog farmer, as well as 
a builder of hog farms, to the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission.

Another fine book published this year, “The Meat Racket,” by Christopher 
Leonard, explores many of the same themes through the behavior of 
another powerful meatpacking company, Tyson Foods. Genoways does a 
better job of portraying the impact of this system on the people at the 
bottom, the destruction of rural communities and the backlash of racism. 
Leonard offers a more comprehensive account of the legal, economic and 
structural changes that have revolutionized American food production. 
Taken together, the two books provide a strong indictment of what this 
country has become, of the injustices and inequality not only tolerated 
but promoted. They also bring to mind “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s 
classic novel that first appeared in print more than a century ago. 
Remembered mainly for its role in prompting federal food safety 
legislation, assigned in high schools for its depiction of immigrant 
struggle, “The Jungle” had much loftier aims. For Sinclair, an avid 
Socialist, the meatpacking industry was no less than “the incarnation of 
blind and insensate Greed, . . . the Great Butcher, . . . the spirit of 
Capitalism made flesh.”

“The Chain” and “The Meat Racket” are important books, well worth 
reading, full of compelling stories, genuine outrage and the careful 
exposure of corporate lies. What they both lack is a sense of hope, a 
forceful assertion that the recent changes for the worse were by no 
means inevitable — and may somehow be reversed. The form of socialism 
Upton Sinclair advocated, with government ownership of industry, 
subsequently proved to be a disaster. But the monopolies he railed 
against were eventually broken. The child labor and wage theft that he 
condemned were later outlawed. The meatpacking industry he held up as a 
symbol of capitalism’s failure would become a source of stable 
middle-­class employment. It’s not as though the wheel has to be 
reinvented. An outraged public, a refusal to ignore the exploitation of 
the poor, a willingness to confront powerful vested interests, a desire 
to expel the influence of money from politics — a movement characterized 
by all those things gained force a hundred years ago and within a 
generation achieved its principal aims. With more books like “The 
Chain,” more anger, knowledge and compassion, I see no reason that 
history can’t repeat itself.

Eric Schlosser is the author of “Fast Food Nation” and an executive 
producer of the documentary “Food Chains.”

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