The Hormel Foods plant in Fremont, Neb., is a sprawling complex, just across the Union Pacific tracks on the southern edge of town. Every day of the week, some 1,400 workers arrive before dawn and emerge in the midafternoon, chatting briefly in the parking lot before fanning out onto the highway. It’s a routine with few surprises, but inside the plant, a grand, if largely ignored, experiment is under way, one that is testing the limits of industrial production—and worker and food safety.
Each working day, more than 10,500 hogs are slaughtered here—their carcasses butchered into parts and marketed as Cure 81 hams or Black Label bacon, the scraps collected and ground up to make Little Sizzlers breakfast sausages. That’s 1,300 hogs per hour, a 33 percent jump in the last decade. To make that happen, Hormel invested $7 million in a plant expansion in 2005 and added an additional 20,000 square feet in early 2012 to meet demand for its signature product, Spam. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be doing business in Fremont, Neb., producing Spam since 1947,” Donnie Temperley, then the plant manager, told the local newspaper. “The people at the plant are very proud of what they do. They’re outstanding employees.”
What few people, even at the Fremont plant, appreciate is that its remarkable production increases stem from a special program piloted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997. The program cut the number of Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors on the processing line from seven to four and permitted participating companies to accelerate line speeds in five pork-processing plants: Excel in Beardstown, Ill.; Hatfield Quality Meats in Hatfield, Pa.; Farmer John in Vernon, Calif.; Quality Pork Processors (QPP) in Austin, Minn.; and Hormel Foods in Fremont.
The idea for the program sounded promising: If plants hired their own quality-assurance officers to sort out diseased carcasses and parts before they reached government inspectors, then, proponents theorized, there would be fewer carcasses for the USDA to inspect and reject. This weed-out of diseased animals earlier in the process would reduce the chance of food contamination; it would also allow plants the flexibility to devise their own inspection processes, rather than adhering to rigid cookie-cutter requirements; and, best of all, these efficiencies would streamline production, reducing the cost of pork for consumers.
Almost from the moment the program was fully implemented in 2003, the participating meatpackers saw huge benefits. In 2004, Excel and Hatfield achieved the largest production increases (measured by total number of swine) of any two packers in the U.S. The other three plants accelerated production for Hormel—not just at the official Hormel plant in Fremont, but also at QPP, which bills itself as a “custom packer” for Hormel, and at Farmer John, which Hormel purchased at the end of 2004. Thus, for the last decade, Hormel’s three cut-and-kill operations—the plants that supply all 9.4 million hogs annually for its operation nationwide—have been among these select five plants that have profited from dramatically increased line speeds.
Hormel’s corporate strategy since the start of the millennium has been to expand into new product lines and buy up existing brands such as Lloyd’s Barbeque to get its pork into a wider range of ready-made products—and reap greater profits. In 2007, Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Ettinger announced that Hormel was generating $1 billion in annual sales from products introduced since 2000. That number has since doubled.
But if packers have been delighted by the increased output, workers’ rights advocates say that runaway production increases have also jeopardized safety. While employees have always experienced challenging conditions along the cut line, Darcy Tromanhauser, program director for Immigrants & Communities at the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, warns that line speeds in meatpacking plants are now “dangerously fast.” In September a coalition of civil rights groups, led by Nebraska Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center, called on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the USDA to “reduce the speed of the processing line to minimize the severe and systemic risks faced by workers,” such as repetitive stress injuries and cuts and amputations, which affect meatpacking workers at alarming rates.
A Fremont worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals in the workplace, describes a recent incident involving a “gut snatcher,” the person responsible for pulling innards from the abdominal cavity. One day last year, the snatcher still had one of his hands inside the carcass when a saw cut through the spine of the animal and sliced off four of his fingers. “I think he lose two of these,” the witness says, pointing to his middle and ring fingers. Then as if an afterthought, he adds that he too has lost part of a finger—the tip of his left pinkie—to a rib cutter. And his wife also lost her index finger, severed by a fat trimmer. In every case, he says, “they washed it up but never stopped production.”
Equally troubling, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General has raised concerns that faster line speeds could compromise food safety. In May, the OIG released a report finding enforcement of protocols at the five pilot plants was so lax that between 2008 and 2011 three ranked among the top 10 violators of food safety requirements. That’s out of 616 pork-packing plants nationwide. As recently as last year, inspectors at the five test plants found hog carcasses bound for processing with lesions from tuberculosis, septic arthritis (with bloody fluid pouring from joints), and fecal smears. The OIG’s assessment warned that “recurring, severe violations may jeopardize public health.”
For its part, Hormel insists that food and worker safety has not suffered at its facilities in the test program, and any upticks in violations reflect more vigilance, not less. “We are taking the traditional inspection service and making it better,” says Julie Craven, vice president for corporate communications at Hormel. “The key elements of USDA regulation—100 percent inspection and corrective action for noncompliance records—remain the same. We are partners with USDA in ensuring the safety of our consumers and employees. We take that responsibility very seriously.”
Maybe so, but since May there have been no shutdowns or changes to address the concerns in the OIG report; on the contrary, the FSIS and USDA now downplay the report findings in interviews, and the FSIS has taken steps to implement reduced inspection and speedier cut lines nationwide.
When Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906, he hoped to shock readers about the mistreatment of immigrant workers in Chicago’s slaughterhouses. Instead, his book created outrage over the unsanitary conditions it described—how poisoned rats got swept into the sausage grinders; how tripe and cartilage were dyed and flavored with spices and sold as canned ham; how men in the cook room occasionally fell into open vats and sometimes went undiscovered for days, their flesh sold to consumers as lard. Sinclair groused that the book became a bestseller “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.”
For regulators, however, the timing of the book couldn’t have been better. At that very moment, legislation before Congress was calling for the establishment of a federal meat inspection program to be run by the USDA. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had supported the bill as part of his reelection platform, wrote to Sinclair, promising that “the specific evils you point out shall, if their existence be proved, and if I have power, be eradicated.” He appointed Commissioner of Labor Charles Neill and social worker James Reynolds to carry out a government probe. When the Neill-Reynolds Report proved to be even more damning of industry practices than The Jungle, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to pass sweeping reforms. The Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 mandated inspection of all livestock before slaughter, postmortem inspection of each carcass to determine health before processing, compliance with new sanitary standards, and submission to constant monitoring by federal inspectors. Most important, the act authorized the USDA to condemn any meat determined to be unfit for human consumption—and levy penalties against violators of the mandate.
Sinclair was unimpressed. He saw the federal inspectors as nothing more than political cover for a corrupt industry, claiming “the laws regulating the inspection of meat were written by the packers” and “paid for by the people of the United States for the benefit of the packers.” Still, for the better part of a century, the Federal Meat Inspection Act formed the basis for authority to supervise and regulate the meat industry under the USDA—and later the FSIS—with the number of inspectors increasing according to the number of carcasses to be inspected by them.
In 1997, the FSIS in partnership with industry suggested implementing an experimental inspection program: the Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). This is the bureaucratic name of the program that has since allowed Hormel and the others to reduce inspection and speed up their lines. Even before it could be implemented, however, the meat inspectors’ union sued, arguing the program violated the Federal Meat Inspection Act. After five years of legal battles, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that delegating the task of inspecting carcasses to private employees did indeed violate the requirement that federal inspectors determine if meat is adulterated. That decision didn’t stop HIMP. In 2002, the meat inspectors’ union agreed to just three on-line inspectors in each of the five pilot plants—even fewer than the original proposal—as long as the USDA agreed to fund additional “relief inspectors” who would work away from the line.
HIMP began in earnest in 2003 and really got rolling by 2005. The OIG’s May 2013 report reviewed activity at the five HIMP plants from 2008 to 2011. As one concession to enrollees in the program, the USDA had agreed to obscure the identities of the individual plants; nevertheless, the descriptions provided correspond in various ways to public records regarding cited violations. (While Hormel confirms that two of its facilities and one of its supplier facilities participate in the program, it declined multiple requests to specify which plants are which in the OIG report.) One of the worst offenders is described as “a plant in Nebraska that slaughtered about 10,600 swine per day.” Only two plants in Nebraska—the Farmland plant in Crete and the Hormel plant in Fremont—fit that description. And the only location in Nebraska listed among “all sites visited” in preparing the audit report is Fremont. All branches of the USDA have declined to confirm that identification, even after Dan Hoppes, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 293 in Fremont, told me, “Yeah, that’s us.”
FSIS recorded a total of 607 violations at that plant, roughly three per workweek, including 50 repeat violations for “yellow fibrous fecal material” on hog carcasses bound for processing and another 39 repeat violations for “yellowish colored residue” and a scum of flesh and fat inside storage vats. Hogs are large animals that discharge vast amounts of excrement in the kill room, and the sheer scale of slaughter and processing can sometimes make it difficult to keep equipment clean. Still, workers themselves say that such realities are why food safety protocols are so important—and why they worry when there isn’t enough time to follow them properly.
The OIG felt that these violations should have resulted in a written warning or even a plant shutdown—something the USDA does about twice a month in the entire country—but no such actions were taken. Worse still, the May report notes an instance where an inspector in Nebraska spotted fecal matter on the hind foot of a carcass that had moved past the plant’s quality-control employees “without being detected”—which is considered a more serious violation. The report concludes that investigation “revealed a systemic failure and not a sporadic problem, including recurring zero-tolerance violations.”
Pablo Ruiz speaks with a heavy Spanish accent, but his English was good enough to make him an asset at QPP in Austin, Minn., where he could communicate instructions from English-speaking supervisors to Spanish-speaking line workers. And he had experience. Ruiz worked for several years sorting cattle alongside USDA inspectors at the Swift plant in Worthington, Minn., so when he came on at QPP, he was promoted to process-control auditor after just eight months. It was his job, in essence, to stay one step ahead of the USDA inspector.
QPP describes itself as a “custom meat operation”—slaughtering and cutting carcasses exclusively for Hormel. But the relationship is even closer than that. The QPP plant was once part of a Hormel plant, before corporate bosses subdivided the building and declared the cut-and-kill operation to be a third-party subcontractor.
On the processing floor, Ruiz floated between stations. Each hour he did 10 checks of incoming carcasses, 10 checks at the viscera table (looking for kidney abscesses and liver flukes), 10 checks at the head table (looking for swollen lymph nodes), and 10 checks to approve completed cuts before the carcasses were sent to the cold side for packing. And each hour he stuck a thermometer into collected bins of brains and ovaries and pancreases to be sure that they were within approved temperature ranges.
Under the rules of the pilot program, the line ran faster, and Ruiz had to hustle from station to station. More efficient automated equipment was developed, patented, and installed to speed up cutting off heads, removing viscera, and halving carcasses. To allow workers making skilled cuts to keep pace, the company installed a conveyor system and buzzing automatic knives throughout the plant, and it broke up complicated tasks into single repetitive motions. By 2007 the line speed had increased from 900 heads per hour to as fast as 1,350 heads per hour—50 percent faster, with minimal increases in the number of workers, but also about 20 percent faster than any high-capacity plant under standard USDA supervision.
Because high-speed lines don’t afford as much time for inspectors to manually check carcasses, the HIMP program uses microbiological tests on select carcasses. “We question whether this is a better measure for food safety,” wrote the OIG in its May report, “because some signs of disease and contamination can be detected only through a manual inspection.” That’s why USDA inspectors are typically required to check the tail, head and tongue, thymus, and all viscera of each hog. They palpate the lymph nodes of the large intestines and lower abdomen to feel for tuberculosis nodules, feel the intestines themselves for parasites, and turn over every set of kidneys to check for hardness resulting from inflammation or hidden masses. At one HIMP plant visited by the OIG, inspectors only manually checked viscera if tuberculosis was observed in lymph nodes in the carcass’s head—but it is rare among hogs just 4 months old for tuberculosis to advance enough to be observable there. “As a result,” the report found, “there is reduced assurance of FSIS inspectors effectively identifying pork that should not enter the food supply.” The OIG identified this plant only as “one of the five HIMP plants that slaughtered about 8,100 swine per day”—but that could only describe the Hormel-owned Farmer John plant.
According to Ruiz, the situation was the same at QPP. He says that the chain was running so fast that the on-line viscera inspector sat on a chair alongside the line, with only enough time to do visual inspections. (Dan Bartel, the business agent for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 9 in Austin, confirmed that the QPP plant has three on-line inspectors, a supervising inspector, and two relief inspectors, all per HIMP regulations, but only one inspector stationed on the “cut side,” checking viscera.) “We just check at the head,” Ruiz says, adding that he doesn’t think there is enough government oversight and that the USDA should double-check the work of process-control auditors. But the lack of oversight, he says, is “why the line goes so fast. When I was there, it was 1,305 per hour. This means 10,000 hogs achieved every eight hours. That’s money in the bank—easy, quick.” (QPP did not respond to telephone requests for comment, as well as a more detailed e-mail. Two messages left on Quality Pork CEO Kelly Wadding’s voicemail also went unreturned.)
In 2007 the pace of work—and drive to increase profit margins in all parts of processing—gave rise to a dangerous situation within the QPP plant. A compressed air system that was used to liquefy brains, to be harvested and marketed in South Korea as a thickener for stir-fry, was found to be aerosolizing trace amounts of brain matter. Workers were inhaling the tissue, causing a previously unknown neurological disorder. In 2008 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified it as a progressive inflammatory neuropathy. Ruiz was one of those exposed; now unable to work, he continues to receive treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for his neuropathy, which causes a constant burning pain in his hands and feet. In all, more than a dozen QPP workers filed for permanent disability, but the OIG report makes no mention of this incident, because the Minnesota Department of Health and the CDC determined that the illness was not food-borne and was therefore outside USDA purview.
When the OIG report was released in May, Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen (who has since resigned her post) told the trade press that it overstated the risks of reduced inspections, because the high speeds were limited to just five plants and the USDA was not considering allowing similar speeds for other pork plants. But in August the U.S. Government Accountability Office called for a review of the program—an important step if the agency were to implement reduced inspection for all pork producers—and promptly announced its intention to allow speed increases across the poultry industry.
Philip Derfler, deputy administrator of the USDA’s FSIS, insists that news reports suggesting the department has similar plans for the rest of the pork industry are “absolutely not true.” In an interview, he concedes that a review of the controversial program is under way and expected to conclude by March 2014, leaving the door open to wider implementation next year. When pressed on the conclusions of the OIG report, Derfler defends HIMP.
“There is no less oversight or supervision in these plants than there is in any other plant,” he says. “In a lot of ways, we’re providing a higher level of coverage and inspection in these plants than we are in other plants.”
In Fremont, Hormel bought property adjacent to its plant and in May 2011 announced that it would be expanding the Spam facility and adding jobs. Industry critics such as Tony Corbo at Food & Water Watch complain that Hormel has simply been rewarded for running what he says is one of the most unsafe plants in the U.S. and now intends to shift more of its production there. Union leaders such as Mark Lauritsen, director of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union’s Food Processing, Packing, and Manufacturing Division, counter that the expansion is a positive development for workers—more jobs, after all. While other industries have been fighting slow sales since the recession, Hormel has seen strong earnings on cheap hogs and a 20 percent increase in sales of Spam. Meeting that demand through government-sanctioned increases in its plants’ line speeds and increasing market share means job security and opportunities to advance.
Upton Sinclair warned that federal meat inspection laws were little more than an attempt to mask the risks to workers—and predicted that the industry would make sure inspection addressed only the barest concerns about the deadliness of a product. Repeatedly he warned against letting meatpackers carry out their own inspections. His warnings resonate more than a century later.