Ted Genoways, The Chain, Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food


ted-genoways-slideTed Genoways served as the editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review from 2003 to 2012. He is a contributing editor at Mother Jones and editor-at-large at OnEarth, and his essays and poetry have appeared in The Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, Harper’s, The New Republic, Outside, and The Washington Post Book World. He is a winner of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism and the recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. Genoways currently lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.


Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass. Thanks for joining me today on It’s All About Food. How are you doing? It’s February 3rd, 2015 and it’s cold here. It’s 25 degrees actually in New York City and you know what always amazes me is when it gets colder, like in the teens, and then it quote “warms up” to 25 or 35, all of a sudden it feels balmy and comfortable. These lower temperatures are more manageable after we’ve gotten some horrible chill from really, really cold weather. Anyway, I like the change, I like the weather and I like the cold. It’s really important to have the right gear and the right wear so that you don’t hurt yourself in the cold because we’re really not meant to be out in such cold weather.

All right, let’s get moving here. There’s a lot to talk about today and I want to bring out my first guest, Ted Genoways. He’s the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food. He served as editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review from 2003 to 2012, he’s the contributing editor at Mother Jones and editor-at-large at onEarth. His essays and poetry have appeared in The Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, Harper’s, The New Republic, Outside and the Washington Post Book World. He’s the winner of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Guggenheim Foundation. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. Ted, thank you for joining me today

Ted Genoways: Thanks very much for having me on.

Caryn Hartglass: Is it cold in Nebraska?

Ted Genoways: It’s cold and snow covered but I guess you kind of expect it if you live on the Great Plains.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, well we’re going to be talking a lot more about Nebraska in the next half hour and some other states. I think you’ve written a very important book, The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, and I’m sure a lot of people have told you this that they didn’t enjoy reading it but are glad they did.

Ted Genoways: It’s not always an easy read and it wasn’t always pleasant writing the book. But the more I researched it, the more I became convinced that it was a story that needed to be told.

Caryn Hartglass: It needs to be told and we need to hear it every day and we’re not.

Ted Genoways: True enough. So I appreciate having the time to talk to you about it

Caryn Hartglass: Yes. So if we have the chance, we’re going to touch on a number of subjects including immigrants, factory inspections, illness from working in slaughter houses, how the insurance companies respond, antibiotics in animal foods, growing corn, how we should be growing our food, politicians who are supposed to be supporting good causes and our needs, vertical integration – you touch on so many different subjects in this book and there’s like problems with everything.

Ted Genoways: Yes, well that was really the idea behind the approach and the reason for the title, The Chain. It’s a kind of a play on words that there’s both the conveyor system within the meat packing plants that sets the speed of production but there’s also the supply chain. In my mind, if you’re going to look at the speed of the chain, the physical chain within the plant, you have to look at what the impact of that increase of speed or production and what effect it’s having up and down the supply chain, often in places that are invisible to the consumer.

Caryn Hartglass: So I was pretty sick to my stomach most of the time when reading this book and I just pressed on. Well very often, it’s hard for me to understand how my fellow humans can do some of the things that they do and very often I say to myself, well they don’t really understand or they don’t really know. Many times in the book I felt like yes, they know what they’re doing and it’s evil.

Ted Genoways: Well I think you touched on the idea of vertical integration, one of the things that makes the chain possible, this whole supply chain possible, is this vertical integration that exists that allows large meat packing companies to own and have a financial interest in everything from the feed in the fields to the final product that goes out to the grocery counter. What that does is it means there is a very small group of people who are making the decisions about how things are going to be run. Their decisions have almost nothing to do with worker safety, with food safety, with environmental safety, animal welfare; the decisions are entirely made based on the bottom line. When they make the decision that certain input costs have to be kept below a certain point, they make that decision in a board room and that decision is passed down through the company all the way to the ground level. In order to make those things a reality, it often means cutting corners, it means asking people to do more work than they’re capable of doing. In those circumstances, people do start to make bad decisions. They do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do. That’s why, to me, the thing that’s always most frustrating is that when there are instances of things like animal abuse or worker abuse, very often those investigations stop at the level of whoever was directly involved in those incidents rather than moving up the chain and saying who made the decisions that created the conditions for those circumstances to emerge.

Caryn Hartglass: Of course, it’s always best to blame the little guy, not the person making the decision and paying your salary. It’s evil. So what we’re talking about for the most part in this book is raising pigs for their meat and other products. It’s just so frustrating to read how often history has repeated itself. I remember in elementary school – I’m not a farmer and I read about farming but I don’t know much about it. There are things that stuck in my mind when I was a kid and one of them was how farmers had to rotate their fields. They needed to let a field rest and nourish it so that the life can rejuvenate and it would be ready in a year or whenever to grow more food. There were all kinds of safeguards that we have learned overtime from lots of mistakes, the government had even made some regulations to farm sustainably. And then, everything went wrong. It’s like we forgot everything and it’s all about farming on every little inch of your property, never resting anything, using the most chemicals you possibly can, getting rid of all the beneficial insects and native plants that help protect the land and keep it alive. It’s just overwhelming.

Ted Genoways: It’s all true. My grandfather, my dad’s dad, was a farmer and worked on a farm for most of the times that my dad was growing up and so my dad grew up on those farms. When he was a kid in the 1940s and 1950s, it was exactly as you described. The farms were diversified, the crops were rotated and there was lots of emphasis on sort of manual labor methods of pest control and weed control. That all changed dramatically in the 1970s when, first of all, the USDA decided that they would use the corn reserves that the country had built up as a foreign policy strategic tool to drop grain prices and to make the world dependent on American grain. At the same time, the decision was made that we could supply the world by industrializing agriculture, by turning toward chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. As you say, it was from that point forward that everything began to focus on specializing and maximizing rather than having all of the tools that we had at our disposal for sustainable farming and all the lessons that we had learned during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era, and the period of over planting that had created the Dust Bowl, we’ve moved right back into that same sort of mentality. What Earl Butz, who was the head of the USDA at the time of all this change, referred to this as fencerow to fencerow. If you’ve got any available inch of land, that you should be planting on it so that there is greater production and greater profit.

Caryn Hartglass: All right, right now we have a devastating situation and you talk about so much of it in the book, how the water quality in many of these areas that are close to these confined animal feedlots, these CAFOs. The water is polluted and people are getting sick. They make requests and demands to the government agencies. Nobody does anything. There are regulations that nobody follows. Companies are fined and nobody pays the fine. Everybody is ignoring everything and it’s very depressing. I’m wondering; are we going to have something like a Dust Bowl again? Only it won’t be a dust bowl, maybe it will be a desert bowl or there will be no more water.

Ted Genoways: I think that the first place to look at right now, as a cautionary tale, is what’s happening in West Texas. West Texas, which has been dependent always on the high plains aquifer system, has essential drained that aquifer. They’ve drained it in the name of raising feed corn for the cattle industry and there’s simply not enough water to sustain either the crops or the livestock themselves now. You’re seeing the closure of feedlots and consequently the closure of packing houses because there’s just not enough water to keep the cattle alive. The sort of compounded problem is something that’s called dust ammonia which comes from the ground getting so dry and so much dust being kicked up into the air that cattle inhale it and it causes pneumonia. So there are places that are starting to move operations out of Texas because there’s just simply not enough water to sustain the beef industry there. Iowa has a problem that’s sort of in the opposite direction. There’s plenty of water that’s available but what they’ve done is not manage the water such that it’s now heavily contaminated by nitrates and by E. coli and other coli form bacteria. It’s become so extreme, a problem, especially because of the hog industry in Iowa that the Des Moines Water Works has actually just recently sued several of the northwest counties in Iowa in order to keep them from dumping so much waste into the water upstream that the city is no longer able to reliable keep itself in compliance with the Clean Water Act. I do think that we’re reaching a kind of crisis point with the way that conventional agriculture is being carried out in the county right now. With always pushing everything to its absolute limit, there’s of course, eventually, a breaking point and I think in several places we seem to be at that point now.

Caryn Hartglass: Stay tuned to the breaking point. I’m not looking forward to that but hopefully we will be able to move on to something better. Now in your book, in the beginning, you talk a lot about immigrants. Some of them who come to the United States legally, some illegally, and the whole scenario about hiring immigrants at these packing houses, these slaughter houses and meat factories. There are so many pieces of the chain there that are heartbreaking. Speeding up the lines to make more meat; it’s dangerous. These people get injuries, they lose fingers, they get arms crushed and they get all kinds of diseases. Nobody wants to take care of them or pay for them. The neighborhood doesn’t like them anymore because they’re getting all the jobs but they’re only getting the jobs because the neighborhood kind of allowed things to happen over time that encouraged this sort of activity. It’s a mess and nobody really has a clear picture about how to solve it.

Ted Genoways: I think that’s really true. The problem, by know, has evolved over a period of more than three decades. With Hormel Foods, this goes back to the strike that occurred in the mid 1980s when the company attempted to slash worker wages and cut benefits. After the strike was finally resolved, essentially the unions lost out entirely. The only concession that they really secured was a promise from Hormel that when the positions in the plant that had been occupied by strike breakers reopened when people left those positions, that preferential hiring would be offered to the workers that had worked there before, the union workers. Instead, as soon as that agreement was struck, Hormel announced that the cut and kill side of the operations, the slaughter side of their operation, was now a separate operation.

Caryn Hartglass: I couldn’t believe reading that story.

Ted Genoways: Absolutely. They’re separate companies and they don’t have a contract with the union and in fact, they don’t pay as well as Hormel. As you might image, many of the workers, the former workers, first of all, felt that they had been utterly betrayed, and they had. But they also refused to work for the lower wages. What Hormel did was fill those positions with immigrant labor, a lot of it undocumented immigrant labor. And as you said, the advantage from their standpoint was that they now had a workforce that was not going to be active in the union so the strikes were no longer likely, they were not likely to complain about work conditions and if they were injured and wanted to file work compensation claims, the company was in a position at that point to question their immigration status. Many of the workers, when that would occur, would simply flee rather than face deportation which would get the company off the hook from having to pay for those injuries. It’s such an entrenched system now. It’s not just Hormel; it’s many of the large meat packing firms that rely on immigrant labor. It is hard to see how the whole trend would be reversed. But I do think it’s important to bear in mind that it hasn’t always been this way and so there’s no need for this to be accepted simply as a the status quo and this sort of permanent state of things. This is a problem that can be fixed and I hope that there will eventually be some immigration reform that allows some of the workers to have greater say in their conditions, their work conditions, and I would hope also that there is also greater government oversight so that there is someone who’s paying attention to the way that workers are treated inside the plant.

Caryn Hartglass: There’s a lot of hoping there.

Ted Genoways: Yes there is. If you don’t hope for things to get better, they only get worse. They regularly improve on their own.

Caryn Hartglass: I was just feeling so bad for everyone; the people who were the quote “locals” in the community. Nobody is ever local. There’s always some other group of people who came before us. When you mention the promises that Hormel made to its people, it just reminded me of the promises the Pilgrims made to the Indians that we didn’t keep very well. We don’t have a good record of keeping promises in this country. But the people that were fighting against the immigrants in their neighborhoods for taking jobs and making them pay taxes to cover the immigrant’s costs and whatever, they just didn’t realize that they were all a piece of the chain and the immigrants weren’t the bad party. The bad party was the big companies, the big corporations that brought them in to exploit them.

Ted Genoways: Well this is a thing with these company towns. It’s the trend that has been going on since World War II, that meat packing companies have tended to build new plants in small towns that are along highways and railroad lines where they have ready access to the market but they don’t have a workforce that is as connected into union leadership and into larger labor movements. So what you get are work forces that are isolated and are more easily exploited. What this means is that in these company towns, the workers who are the previous generation of workers, many of whom have been displaced by immigrant labor, as I said, they feel betrayed but they’re also kind of trapped. The companies are very often, these plants are the major employer in town and they may be critical to the tax base. Very often they are tied into public utility products. The town is in many ways utterly dependent on them. So when they’re angry at a company like Hormel, instead of directing that anger directly to the company and raging the company in a way that might potentially drive them out of town, they tend to turn their anger on the workforce. As you say, it’s a terrible outcome because the people who are already exploited are then also facing community outrage and are kind of driven underground in ways that makes it so it’s very difficult for them to advocate on their own behalf.

Caryn Hartglass: Now the products that are coming out of the areas that you’ve covered, we have Hormel, they are the makers of Spam but they’re also the makers of higher end pork products. There were other companies and more and more are starting to export some of their meat to countries like Japan and China.

Ted Genoways: Yes that’s right.

Caryn Hartglass: Here’s a question just for you Ted. Do you eat any of the products from these companies?

Ted Genoways: I do not. I don’t for a number of reasons.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s going to lead to another question but yes, continue.

Ted Genoways: I don’t because I would prefer, if I’m going to be spending money on meat products, to be giving my money as directly as possible to the growers who raised, in this case, the hogs. To know how the animals were slaughtered and butchered, I want to be involved in that process if at all possible. But I also just don’t want to be giving my money to a company that is exploiting its labor force and isn’t concerned with animal welfare and has a poor environmental track record. As you say, in the case of this book, that’s Hormel Foods that I’m looking at that but you could look at almost any of the major meat packers and find similar problems.

Caryn Hartglass: So you do eat meat?

Ted Genoways: I do eat meat, yes I do. Now I’m fortunate to be in a place like Nebraska where there are lots of local producers around and I am able to not only see the animals while they’re still on the hoof but get to know my farmers and get good relationships with them so that I know exactly what they’re practices are. I think not only for people in rural areas like where I am, but I think across the county it’s getting easier to get access to food that is sustainably produced. I think that also the consumers are starting to realize that the price differential between the industrial produced meat and sustainably produced meat is not that wide. Especially when you start to factor in other social costs and environmental costs for your community, I think it becomes an easy investment to say that you’re willing to spend a little bit more at the grocery store if it means the animals are better treated, that the farmer is better treated, and that the community and environment are treated better.

Caryn Hartglass: As you may now, I am a very out vegan.

Ted Genoways: Yes, I do now.

Caryn Hartglass: Good. Although you know would love people not to kill animals for any reasons at all. It certainly would be better if we didn’t have factory farms and have animals confined in these horrific conditions that are filthy, unhealthy and terrible to humans as well as to the animals.

Ted Genoways: Right.

Caryn Hartglass: The catch though is that everybody has to eat a lot less meat in order to raise animals in the way which you describe which you consider sustainable. We cannot grow the quantity of animals to make the meat products that people are consuming today without confining them in this horrific way.

Ted Genoways: That’s absolutely true and I think that that’s the thing for people who are intending to continue to eat meat, at the very least, we have to start to make peace with the idea that we can’t consume meat at every meal, that we can’t consume the quantity of meat that is often on offer at restaurants in America, that all of this is just not sustainable especially as our population continues to grow. To me, the trade off is saying well, I’m going to choose higher quality meat that is produced in a way that I feel is more ethical and I will be willing to deal with smaller portions of that. I also have to say, as a meat eater, I find that if you can consume something with a bit more of a clear conscious and you got something that’s higher quality, it is more satisfying than just large quantities of something that you’re trying not to think about where it came from.

Caryn Hartglass: I can understand that. I can spin that over to when I’m consuming a dessert that is a very small portion and it’s made with high quality ingredients. I don’t need pounds and pounds of it if I had like a few morsels of a very rich, satisfying treat. I do want to say, and you may not agree with me, probably not, but I believe that this ability to exploit humanity you mentioned before, exploiting the labor force, I think it starts, for me, I think when you believe it’s okay to kill another sentient being for food or whatever reason, that starts the numbing process. And then it enables you to accept other forms of exploitation, so that enables us to treat the animals worse and worse because we need to make more money and profit more, and then that enables us to exploit our fellow humans as well. But I think the numbing process, that ability to exploit, starts from a fundamental concept.

Ted Genoways: I think that’s fair. I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that when one decides to consume meat, that what you’re doing is killing a living animal so that you can consume it. What so much of the industrial process is about is removing that whole grizzly reality from view. That’s why I think that if one is going to eat meat that you have to be more aware of the process. Like I said, I not only know the farmers, I see the animals on the hoof, and I’ve participated in the slaughter and the butchering of the animals. I do that because I think if I don’t have the stomach to be involved in the process, then I shouldn’t be doing this at all. I think at the very least it makes me much more conscious of what I’m eating and much more judicious about the consumption of that meat as well. I think, exactly as you say, that as soon as you start to distance yourself from those realities, then it becomes easier to objectify and distance yourself form the workers, the farmers and everybody involved in the process. That’s unquestionably bad for everyone.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, we just have a few more minutes. Any recommendations you can make to all of us about how we can solve some of these problems?

Ted Genoways: Well one thing that I can say that I think is an exciting development of the last few days is that an organization called the Food Integrity Campaign, which is part of the Government Accountability Project, have taken up the sort of cause of trying to urge Hormel Foods to slow it’s production lines. If listeners just go to foodwhistleblower.org, they will find that there is information there about this campaign and about the petition that is being circulated and that they hope to deliver to the CEO of Hormel Foods. I think that though this may be largely a symbolic move, that it is useful to let some of these companies know that the word is getting out and that people are concerned about the way that the workers are treated inside these plants, the way that food safety is handled in these plants and the way that the environment is being affected. Simply by adding your name to that list, I think it does help send that message.

Caryn Hartglass: A couple more things. I could talk to you a long time; there are so many issues here that matter. This whole whistle blower concept – we have regulation that was created about a decade or so ago, this Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act that’s just a nightmare and puts a lot of fear in a lot of activists to speak up and be a whistle blower.

Ted Genoways: It certainly does and I’m pleased to say that some of the – that the Government Accountability Project, they were some of the people who were involved in defending some of those agag whistle blowers. I think it was really through those efforts that a group of USDA inspectors from Hormel Foods have now come forward and their descriptions of the treatment of animals and of the food safety practices inside these plants have now been added to the growing chorus of voices talking about the problems in these plants. My hope is that this is kind of finally the piece that’s been needed for the USDA to say we have to address this at the point that the USDA’s own inspectors say this isn’t right and this isn’t safe. I would hope that at that point they have to address it.

Caryn Hartglass: Right, well I would hope too, also. I’m just looking at this article that came out in the New York Times a little over a week ago about the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center.

Ted Genoways: Right.

Caryn Hartglass: I mean that’s another scary bit of information about how tax money is being used to do horrific experiments on animals in Nebraska.

Ted Genoways: That’s correct, that’s just across town from me. You know, it’s very true and I think it goes back to your earlier point that when we get too disconnected from the farm, too disconnected from the animals themselves, it becomes easy to make decisions about the way that research is conducted, about the way that animals are raised and the way that they are slaughtered because you’re not seeing the actual consequences. I think that if the companies themselves are not willing to take a hard look at their practices then it’s really required of our leaders and the government to establish commonsense guidelines that protect everyone.

Caryn Hartglass: That sounds good. Stay tuned to see what really happens next in the real world of us. Thanks Ted. Thanks for writing The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food and I’ve had a real pleasure talking with you today.

Ted Genoways: Thanks so much for having me, I really appreciate it.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, take care. Alright, it’s time for a break and when we come back we’re going to lighten it up a little bit and talk about the best green smoothies on the planet with Tracy Russell. We’ll be right back.

Transcribed by Stefan Pavlović, 3/9/2015

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