April 2015: The Chain by Ted Genoways

Book Club

The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food

A powerful and important work of investigative journalism that explores the runaway growth of the American meatpacking industry and its dangerous consequences.

On the production line in American packinghouses, there is one cardinal rule: the chain never slows. Every year, the chain conveyors that set the pace of slaughter have continually accelerated to keep up with America’s growing appetite for processed meat. Acclaimed journalist Ted Genoways uses the story of Hormel Foods and soaring recession-era demand for its most famous product, Spam, to probe the state of the meatpacking industry, including the expansion of agribusiness and the effects of immigrant labor on Middle America.

Genoways interviewed scores of industry line workers, union leaders, hog farmers, and local politicians and activists. He reveals an industry pushed to its breaking point and exposes alarming new trends: sick or permanently disabled workers, abused animals, water and soil pollution, and mounting conflict between small towns and immigrant workers.

The narrative moves across the heartland, from Minnesota, to witness the cut-and-kill operation; to Iowa, to observe breeding and farrowing in massive hog barns; to Nebraska, to see the tense town hall meetings and broken windows caused by the arrival of Hispanic workers; and back to Minnesota, where political refugees from Burma give the workforce the power it needs to fight back.

A work of brilliant reporting, The Chain is a mesmerizing story and an urgent warning about the hidden cost of the food we eat.



I sat down with Ted to ask him some questions about the book, his process and how it has changed him – read on for our conversation below!

Join the book club

AL: How did you get interested in this story? Was there one moment when you realized: That’s the book I have to write?

TG: At first, I envisioned this simply as a magazine story. I read a small news item about an unexplained neurological disorder that was affecting packinghouse workers at a Hormel subsidiary in Austin, Minnesota. I had lived in Minnesota and knew a little about the meatpacking history of the area. I thought it would make for a compelling medical mystery, as readers discovered that the source of the disorder was something known as the “brain machine.” The device was designed to harvest brains from butchered hogs by releasing a blast of compressed air into the opening at the back of each skull, turning the soft brain matter into a pink slurry. But each burst of air was also aerosolizing small amounts of porcine brain tissue, which workers were unknowingly inhaling–causing this previously unknown disorder. As I reported more, though, what struck me was that the lead researcher at the Mayo Clinic laid ultimate blame for the outbreak on work speed. It was line speed increases–trying to work too fast, with no breathing or eye protection–that created the unsafe conditions. Before long, I began wondering: what other implications do increased line speeds have? How does this affect the other parts of the supply chain? Those questions were the start of the journey toward writing the book.


AL: Do you think being a fourth-generation Nebraskan informed how you reported this story? If so, how?

TG: I’m sure it does. I’ve lived in Nebraska, on and off, since I was a teenager–and both of my parents grew up in Nebraska. My grandparents and extended family were here. It was where we went for summer vacations and holidays. So even before I lived here, it was home base. And then, my family moved here when I was at the end of middle school. So I went through high school and college in Nebraska, and I also lived for a while in Minnesota and then in Iowa. So the principal locales in the book were places I knew and to some extent understood. I think that gave me a certain credibility with people as I was doing my research and reporting, and it certainly gave me insight into the mindset that governs many of these communities. At the same time, I’m enough of an outsider that I approach these places with a reporter’s wary eye. I try not to assume that any one place is like another–and even that the same place is the same as it was the last time I visited. All of which is to say that I approach the people and places in the book with a natural well of empathy but also with what I hope to is a healthy dose of distance and objectivity.


AL: The subtitle of your book is “Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food.” It also felt, to me, like the story of organized labor in this country: How decades of a dedicated attack on organized labor has led to everything from food safety issues to a disappearing middle class. Can you talk about how this story connects with organized labor? What was the response from the unions representing these workers to your book?

TG: The part of my upbringing that wasn’t spent in Nebraska was mostly passed in Pittsburgh–and at the absolute lowest point of the American steel industry and Regan-era union-busting. I remember vividly when Reagan visited the city in 1983. He was met by an angry mob of unemployed steelworkers. As a stunt, the president visited a computer training class at the Control Data Corporation to show how former blue-collar workers were receiving computer training and finding jobs. Instead, he was heckled. When Reagan protested that there were plenty of job for anyone who wanted one, a trainee in the class–a guy named Ron Bricker–stood up and shouted, “Mr. President, I’ve been looking for a job for a year, and I can’t find one.” Then he marched to the front of the room and presented Reagan with his resume. From the time I was young, I understood: you have to stand up to protect your rights and livelihood–and a union makes that task easier. As I’ve gotten older, that view has become a lot more nuanced and complex.

First of all, there’s just no denying the racist origins of many of the unions. All big companies–but especially the railroads and packinghouses–were fond of breaking strikes by bringing in “scab” workers, who very often were ethnic minorities. The union at Hormel in Austin was born out of a collective effort to drive out African American workers. The stockyards where my grandfather worked in Omaha were in near-constant upheaval from 1890s to the 1930s–and strikes often descended into mob violence against minority workers. There were lynchings of African American workers but also the eviction of Japanese workers in 1905, the burning of Greek Town in 1909, anti-German laws during World War I. All of this was centered on the packinghouses–and the unions that protected them. Today, I think it’s kind of the opposite problem. Ever since the Hormel workers’ strike of 1985-86 failed to achieve any of its ends, the United Food and Commercial Workers union sees its role as working with the big meat-packers. The disappearance of that adversarial relationship has meant a virtual end to labor unrest in America, but it has also ushered in an era when workers are nearly powerless to negotiate a fair salary and safe work conditions.


AL: So many of these stories required that you come to know these workers well; that they trusted you to share their story. Can you share a little about your process? How did you find your characters? Was it hard to get them to open up to you? 

TG: A lot of the process is really just patience. It helped a lot that most of the locations in the book were within a few hours’ drive of my home in Lincoln. So I could make multiple trips to talk to people and get to know them over time. And it’s amazing how quickly people start to work on behalf of reporters. Once it becomes clear that you’re actually interested in their story, people have a list of other people you should meet–family, friends, co-workers, community leaders. As I published parts of the book in magazine articles, there were people who started to find me that way, too. I’d get messages over Facebook or via Twitter from people who had read the articles and had something more to contribute. A company like Hormel can be extremely frustrating to write about; they’re a black box and they work hard to keep you from seeing what’s inside. But once you let in a little daylight, everything starts to become clearer.


AL: What’s the reception been like to the book by the companies you write about?

TG: The meat industry–maybe large-scale agriculture, in general, in this country–is intensely secretive. They have been able to escape a lot of scrutiny simply by not engaging in public battles. So Hormel hasn’t said anything about the book in the press. Instead, they have focused on trying to generate positive press (sending a Spam truck around the country, in an attempt to appeal to foodies, for example), while remaining silent on the book. Behind the scenes, the lobbying effort has definitely been stepped up. And that’s not just my book. I think the meat industry saw how groups were able to organize and oppose efforts to approve higher line speeds in poultry plants, so they’re determined to push pork through before a similar effort can been mounted.


AL: It’s cliché to ask, but I feel like I have to: Are you optomistic things will change? Where do you see the opoprtunity for reforms?

TG: The frustrating thing is that the program at the heart of my book, a USDA experimental program aimed at increasing line speeds, could be halted easily. It’s still in its pilot phase. If the USDA were to call it off, it could be ended tomorrow. Instead, there’s a concerted effort to expand the program from the 5 test plants to more than 600 pork packing plants nationwide. By the time the activist community became aware that the USDA had commenced a 9-month study, looking into this expansion, the USDA was already more than a third of the way through the “research” phase. Meanwhile, the USDA has made no effort to address concerns raised by me, by Nebraska Appleseed, by Food & Water Watch, by Food Safety News, by their own inspectors. Al Almanza, the undersecretary for food safety, told Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro in congressional budget hearings that he had no intention of looking into those concerns. The relationship between the meat industry and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has become so cozy that the people paid with our tax dollars to protect the American consumer instead see themselves as advocates for industry.


AL: I read a lot of books about the food industry and unfortunately a lot of them feel like a chore to read. Your book was diffrerent: It was engrossing. A gripping story. A page-turner. Any secret to how you achieved what I think is so hard to foster in a book like this?

TG: First: thank you so much. This is exactly what I was going for. Right from the beginning, it seemed to me that the book would have no effect at all if people bought a copy out of a sense of duty or good intentions but then never read it because it was deadly dull. Lucky for me, the material itself provided a lot of drama–a medical mystery involving workers with sudden paralysis, a town gripped by a push to legally evict all undocumented immigrants, a barn complex infiltrated by undercover investigators from PETA. In some ways, I think the trick was just getting out of the way, so the story could speak for itself and gather its own momentum.

AL: Did this reporting change you? And if so, how?

TG: Most of all, I think this reporting has made me a more mindful eater. I can’t eat anything–not just pork, but anything at all–without wondering how it was raised, what environmental impact its production had, how the workers who processed it were treated. If we could all start to question each step in the supply chain just a little bit more, I think it would be a huge step toward producing more ethical food.