Is Hormel firing workers that it made sick?

Is making mystery meat causing mysterious illnesses?

Is making mystery meat causing mysterious illnesses?

A recent piece in Mother Jones (with lovely photos by Alec Soth) skewers the makers of Spam with some serious accusations: "First Hormel gutted the union. Then it sped up the line. And when the pig-brain machine made workers sick, they got canned."

Reporter Ted Genoways goes, literally, into the belly of the beast, on the cut-and-kill floor of Austin, Minnesota's Quality Pork Processors Inc. to graphically describe the goings on at the "head table" where workers remove the ears, snouts, cheek meat, eyes, tongues, and palate meat from the heads of 1,300 pig heads per hour.

But the worst job, by far, is operating the "brain machine":


On the other side, Garcia inserted the metal nozzle of a 90-pounds-per-square-inch compressed-air hose and blasted the pigs' brains into a pink slurry. One head every three seconds. A high-pressure burst, a fine rosy mist, and the slosh of brains slipping through a drain hole into a catch bucket. (Some workers say the goo looked like Pepto-Bismol; others describe it as more like a lumpy strawberry milkshake.) When the 10-pound barrel was filled, another worker would come to take the brains for shipping to Asia, where they are used as a thickener in stir-fry. Most days that fall, production was so fast that the air never cleared between blasts, and the mist would slick workers at the head table in a grisly mix of brains and blood and grease.

Genoways explains Hormel's transition from family-run company to corporation, touching on its history of cranking out K-rations, enduring one of the country's most devastating strikes, and its current problems with some of its workers contracting an autoimmune disorder as a result of being exposed to pig brain material.

Genoways profiles several QPP employees, undocumented immigrants who contracted illnesses at work, who felt they were pushed out of the company without getting proper benefits and compensation. QPP's CEO Kelly Waddington says, "We have no desire to send these people down the road," but Genoways portrayal paints a decidedly different picture.