Years have passed since Pablo Ruiz worked as a floor supervisor inside a swine slaughterhouse in Austin, Minnesota. Yet his body remains in constant pain, the result, medical experts say, of inhaling a daily dose of pig brain tissue mist.
According to Ted Genoways, author the new book The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, Ruiz, was one of the roughly two dozen former workers -- 90 percent of them Hispanic -- at the Spam factory in southern Minnesota, who in 2006 showed symptoms of a bizarre neurological disease that caused body fatigue and extreme pain in the extremities, as well as swelling of the spine and brain.
The last time he spoke to Ruiz, says Genoways, the former slaughterhouse worker still had a difficult time getting around, let alone working, and was now diabetic due to steroid treatments designed to reign in his swelling.
Officials at the Mayo Clinic and the Minnesota Department of Health would ultimately attribute the befallen workers to the inhalation of brain matter vapors while slaughtering hogs.
The author explains it this way: "Slaughterhouses have come to use virtually every part of the animal. That's what was happening in Austin. They were selling the 'pink slurry' to a company in South Korea that was using it as a thickener in stir fry.
"The problem was, liquifying the brains required enough pressure, a blast of air so strong that it was being aerolized, and the workers were inhaling it, getting it into their eyes, and over a period of months or years, they started to have problems."
Genoways says his book isn't simply a story about immigrant workers getting sick. Rather, it's a larger narrative about ag's industrialization where "the emphasis is on production speed versus the health and safety of workers [who]... are often demonized, but in reality, work dangerous, low-paying jobs, trying to get a toehold in the economy, and are just part of a system where they have no say."
Other workers accepted a one-time lump sum settlement from the slaughterhouse and its insurer, AIG, amounting to approximately $12,000. Ruiz has yet to reach an accord. He'a asking his former employer, Quality Pork Processors Inc. (QPP), to pay his medical bills.
QPP, a privately held meat processing company, has gone from processing 5,000 hogs in 1989 to a current level of 19,000 hogs a day.
This is what Genoways' book is all about.
"I felt his was a story that had to be told because I had the feeling that there hadn't been enough written about the people personally at the bottom, people who work on the line of the meatpacking plants where these animals are being processed faster than can be safely done."
QPP declined comment.