Much of the outrage generated by the meat industry involves the rough treatment of animals. But as Ted Genoways shows in his searing new book The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food—which grew of his long-form 2011 Mother Jones piece “The Spam Factory’s Dirty Secret”—the people employed in its factory-scale slaughterhouses have it pretty rough, too. The book hinges on a rare neurological disorder that, in the mid-2000s, began to affect workers in a Spam factory in Austin, Minnesota—particularly ones who worked in the vicinity of the “brain machine,” which, as Genoways writes, used compressed air to blast slaughtered pigs’ brains “into a pink slurry.” As Genoways memorably puts it: “A high-pressure burst, a fine rosy mist, and the slosh of brains slipping through a drain hole into a catch bucket.” I recently caught up with him to talk about the world of our dark, Satanic meat mills, and the bright spots he sees after immersing himself in it.
Mother Jones: When did you first get interested in the meat industry?
Ted Genoways: I’m a fourth generation Nebraskan, and my grandfather, my dad’s dad, during the Depression, worked in the packinghouses in Omaha around the union stockyards there. One Sunday, when they were visiting relatives just outside of Omaha, my grandfather decided to take my dad in to see the packing houses, and into the hog-kill room, when he was probably about 10 years old. And my dad said that he was just sort of overwhelmed by the noise and the screeching of the hogs and the terror. My first book was a book of poems, Bullroarer: A Sequence, that had one section that dealt with some of that.
MJ: How did you go from poetry to investigating this disturbing brain disorder among meat-packing workers?
TG: Around 2000, I had a job working as a book editor at the Minnesota Historical Society Press, and the first book that I worked on there was a book called Packinghouse Daughter, by Cheri Register, about the packinghouse strike in Albert Lea, Minnesota, in 1959. Her father was one of the meatpacking workers there. I also read Peter Rachleff’s book about the Hormel strike in the ’80s in Austin, Minnesota, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland.
So it caught my eye in 2007 when there were some AP stories, and eventually the New York Times did a story, about the outbreak of this neurological disorder among the packing house workers at Quality Pork Processors in Austin. The fact that the people affected were almost entirely Hispanic intrigued me.