“The work of all great literature,” Ted Genoways wrote in the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) in 2012, is “to transport us to worlds we never knew existed while also forcing us to look at our familiar surroundings anew, to reexamine what we thought we already knew.” Genoways undertakes this double task in his own work, chronicling with precision and empathy the human stories behind such fraught subjects as the American meatpacking industry and the Keystone XL pipeline. When examining the social implications of policy, he maintains, “My sympathies are universally with whoever is at the bottom and getting screwed the most.”
Genoways began his literary career as a teenager in Nebraska, where he co-founded Muse, a magazine the Columbia School of Journalism would declare the best high school publication in the country. Later, in 1998, while pursuing his MFA at the University of Virginia, he founded Meridian, the literary journal of UVA’s creative writing program. In 2001, he published his first poetry collection, Bullroarer: A Sequence, about his grandfather’s work in the Omaha stockyards. He won a 2002 Pushcart Prize, a 2002 Natalie Ornish Poetry Award, and several other literary accolades by the age of thirty.
As a result of his work at Meridian and his achievements in poetry, the selection committee at VQR appointed Genoways their new editor, to succeed Staige Blackford, who had long been in the role. Genoways helmed the quarterly for nearly a decade, from 2003 on, expanding its global coverage and helping to earn twenty-five National Magazine Award nominations. But in 2012, controversy arose over workplace stresses at VQR. Genoways disavowed any responsibility and resigned to devote more time to his writing.
He turned to a familiar topic. Genoways had published an investigative article in Mother Jones in 2011 on the proliferation of a strange disease called progressive inflammatory neuropathy (PIN), which afflicted several Hormel Foods slaughterhouse workers in Austin, Minnesota. The symptoms included “numbness and tingling in their extremities, chronic fatigue, searing skin pain,” which, in some cases, culminated in paralysis. He says he began to see how various forms of slaughterhouse worker exploitation were “all part of the same story.”
He ultimately expanded that narrative into a book, The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food, released in October 2014. In it, Genoways explores the ways increased line speeds on slaughterhouse kill floors result in a host of physical and social ills, focusing on Hormel Foods and the labor and immigration status abuses that impact much of the Spam-producing company’s workforce. In the interview that follows, he grants that a change in consumer habits can move the needle, but argues that government regulation is a more apt means when it comes to addressing these injustices swiftly and sustainably.
Several critics have remarked that The Chain, recently nominated for a 2015 James Beard Award, evokes Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking 1906 novel, The Jungle. The Associated Press deemed The Chain “a searing indictment” of the American meatpacking industry, and in the New York Times, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser praised the book as a necessary corrective for a food movement that “has thus far shown greater interest in animal rights than in the human rights of the workers who produce America’s food.” Says Genoways, “I wish that it wasn’t still so difficult to get people to factor in worker safety. I wish that Upton Sinclair’s mission from more than a century ago were more fully realized.”
I spoke with Genoways at his home in southeast Lincoln, Nebraska. Our conversation took place in his walk-out basement, where bookshelves lined the walls and a nearby golf course unfurled like a dull-green carpet outside the window. He poured us each a shot of organic tequila, which he’s currently researching for his next book project, and took one quiet sip before beginning our interview, as if bracing himself for the brutality he was about to describe.
—Carson Vaughan for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve written several books of poetry. At what point did you start focusing more squarely on longform journalism?
Ted Genoways: At the point people started paying me for nonfiction! [laughs] I still write poetry, and I still read poetry.
These aren’t different skills. Poetry is basically built out of what I think of as being a fairly political act at its core: “I’m not going to listen to how you described things. I’m going to look at them much more intensely and carefully than most people do, and certainly more intensely than our culture wants us to.” The mission of the poem, of course, is to try to find the way to do that in the smallest amount of space possible.
Nonfiction, I think, has a similar mission but a more expansive canvas. The challenge is keeping the attention of a reader over that span of time, and to keep the quality of the writing as high as it needs to be to keep people’s attention. But beyond that, it really is about recognizing the crystalline moments that define something, and redefining our way of understanding things, and then figuring out how those things relate one to the next. The pleasure of nonfiction is that it takes all of that sort of artistic and observational skill, but then there’s a more intellectual layer on top of it: it’s not enough to make us see things in new ways, we have to try to figure out what that means for the way we live.
Guernica: Prior to striking out on your own as a freelancer, you edited VQR from 2003 to 2012. Do you miss that sort of collaborative environment?
Ted Genoways: The appeal of editing, especially when you’re assigning projects, is that you can say, “Here’s something I’m really interested in,” and the next thing you know, someone arrives with an article on that topic at the length that you’ve requested. There’s no question that that is really seductive. It allows you to jump to that last stage of honing and crafting this for the reader. For me, the downside of that is [forgoing] the fun and the challenge of travel and negotiating unfamiliar situations and forging relationships with [sources]. So the challenges are different, and the collaborations are certainly different.
Freelancing has allowed me a couple of more sustained collaborations, the first of which is with my wife, Mary Anne, on a number of projects where she is the photographer and I’m the writer. She has a lot of influence in the way we structure the reporting and the kinds of questions we come up with as we’re figuring these things out together.
Guernica: What led you back to Nebraska?
Ted Genoways: It was a combination of factors, the first of which was that my whole immediate family was here. But the idea of returning to Nebraska originated from the long-term projects I’ve been working on [that are partially set in Nebraska] that have to do with meatpacking, the Keystone XL pipeline, and agricultural issues in general. Being here, on the ground, in the middle of everything, you just get a different level of understanding.
When we moved here, the biggest concern was, “Are there going to be enough assignments from editors on the coast for stories from middle America?” You call somebody up in New York and say, “Hey, they’re passing an ordinance that [effectively prevents] somebody who doesn’t have proper documentation from renting an apartment or getting a job in this small town in Nebraska.” [Editors] say, “That’s crazy. You should write a story about that.” I can say that, having been here for almost three years, there hasn’t been a single story that I’ve worked up into a pitch that hasn’t found a home. What that tells me is that most editors on the coast just don’t know what’s happening here. If you can be immersed in it enough to have an understanding of it, and then be able to communicate [those stories] to people outside the region, I think there’s a real place for that.
Not surprisingly, my sympathies were always with the line worker. That was my grandfather.
Guernica: Prior to the publication of The Chain, you had written a number of articles about the meatpacking industry for various magazines. What initially sparked your interest in the topic?
Ted Genoways: My grandfather, as a young man, worked in a Swift & Co. packinghouse in Omaha, one of the plants around the old stockyards there. So, when I was a very young kid, I heard some stories from him, and then later from my dad, about what that work had been like for him. Not surprisingly, my sympathies were always with the line worker. That was my grandfather.
My first book of poems dealt significantly with my grandfather’s time in some of those packing plants, and because of that, when I was working at the Minnesota Historical Society Press, the very first book they assigned to me was a book by Cheri Register called Packinghouse Daughter. She was an academic who was the daughter of one of the millwrights at the Wilson & Company plant in Albert Lea. Working with her on that book, I got a pretty significant understanding of the Wilson & Company strike that occurred there in 1959.
When you’re talking about meatpacking strikes in Minnesota, the Hormel strike just comes up. I did some work with Peter Rachleff, whose previous book was called Hard-Pressed in the Heartland, about the Hormel workers’ strike. Peter was really critical to the historical reporting at an early stage, because I was able to say, “I need union guys from the ’80s.” He had call lists.
With all that as background, it was a newspaper article that sparked my interest again. An item in the newspaper said that there was this group of workers in Austin, Minnesota, who have all been affected by this unexplained neurological disorder, and the CDC was looking into it. Because I knew about Austin, because I knew about the Hormel strike and had this interest in packinghouse stuff in the first place, I just kind of followed that story.
The thing that really clinched it was talking to everybody—and everyone in every instance said that the problem was speed, how fast they were expected to work. For me, it slowly emerged that this was not just a series of related stories, but it was all part of the same story.
Guernica: In the prologue, you write that The Chain is not only a portrait of “American industry pushed to its breaking point by the drive for increased output, but also a cracked mirror in which to see our own complicity.” How is the average American responsible for the abuses that you expose in this book?
Ted Genoways: We feed it as much as it feeds us. Any of these companies—like Hormel—make decisions on how their supply chain is structured based on what the buying patterns are. In some small way, every time we make a decision at the grocery store or at the drive-through, those decisions all have an effect on Hormel’s bottom line and the way they structure everything about their business.
It’s certainly true that, on the one hand, these businesses are so giant that it’s hard to see how consumers can have any impact on them. On the other hand, part of the way these giant corporations work is by taking things that [have] extremely narrow margins and making them profitable by doing them in volume. So it’s surprising how a minor slump in sales can have a huge impact, and can actually cut so significantly into that margin that the company really feels it.
Guernica: If consumer demand drops, what’s to stop Hormel from simply turning around and cutting its workforce?
Ted Genoways: It’s an interesting question, and I think this is one of the dangers of direct-action boycotts or any sort of protest. I don’t think people who are supporting the food movement ever want to be in a position where they are opposing the workers who are dependent on the system. The companies are very good at setting up workers and activists in opposition to each other, and getting the message out to workers that those people are threatening their jobs.
What I want is for people to be treated better, to be paid better, and when you start doing something simple like that, it forces your price point up, which means that you have to produce a higher quality product in order to justify that. That has all kinds of ripple effects in terms of better animal welfare, and very often in terms of an environmental statement and other corporate optics.
Guernica: What steps can be taken by ordinary citizens who have decided to stand against the meatpacking industry’s systems of cutting corners, exploiting workers, and looking the other way on a slew of health and environmental issues?
Ted Genoways: These companies are sort of like aircraft carriers: once they’re set on a particular course, it takes a lot to turn them one way or the other. I think it is important for everybody to bring their spending habits into line with their ideals. But it is more than that. The reality is that action could happen most swiftly with government regulation.
If you’d asked me about government regulation six months ago, I would have been far more pessimistic than I am now. Part of my despair over the future of pork was seeing what was happening with poultry [due to the Agriculture Department’s new rules, which enabled even faster assembly lines]. Pork was clearly lined up to go next. But there was such a pushback against the poultry [inspection] rule that eventually the USDA did strike a compromise. They set caps on line speeds for poultry production. I think that victory has also helped to energize some of the people who are opposing a similarly constructed pork rule.
The other thing I find encouraging is that, if you can suffer the tedium of understanding these government programs, you can identify certain choke points. This experimental, high-speed hog [processing] program is a perfect example of that. It ends when the president, the secretary of agriculture, or Congress says, “No, we’re not going to do that anymore”—either by executive decision or by cutting off funding.
The alternative is that, with no scrutiny, with no activism against it, the high-speed slaughter program could go from the five plants that are represented by Hormel in the book to 616 plants nationwide. Then the problem would increase more than 100-fold. It is a very small and seemingly insignificant pilot program, but if it goes forward, it will affect the way that all pork is produced in the United States.
The first symptoms that people noticed was burning in their feet—at first a kind of tingling, burning sensation, and then just a searing pain.
Guernica: You discuss the prevalence of progressive inflammatory neuropathy (PIN) among workers on the kill floor in Hormel slaughterhouses. What are the symptoms of PIN, and what causes it?
Ted Genoways: Here’s what happens: you inhale pig brains. Your body produces antibodies to try to kill all of those foreign cells. They’re neural cells, and as it happens, cell structure for pigs is rather similar to humans. So when the antibodies are done killing all the pig cells, they are still in killing mode, and they start looking for other neural tissue. For whatever reason, the first thing the antibodies attack is what’s called the myelin sheath, the sheath that protects the nerve. And it eats away at that sheath, so it’s literally an exposed nerve. Then anything that normally we would perceive just as tactile sense is now being perceived all along that exposed part of the nerve as pain.
For the person suffering from it, it is agonizing. And the “progressive” in the name indicates that, for that period of exposure, at least as long as you’re continuing to inhale the foreign bodies, your body is still creating the antibodies, and the sheaths are continuing to be broken down and [exposing] the nerves themselves.
The first symptoms that people noticed was burning in their feet—at first a kind of tingling, burning sensation, and then just a searing pain. It spread from their feet up to their knees. Then people started getting it in their hands and along their arms up to their elbows. Because of the nature of the work, a lot of the initial assumptions—especially because this was happening right at that peak recessionary period when there were second shifts and weekend shifts—was, well, my feet and my hands hurt because I’m standing all day long doing these repetitive motions. But as the pain intensified and some people experienced actual paralysis, what was going on was that the neuropathy was affecting the long nerves that run to the extremities. And the effect on the nerves was starting at the very end and making its way back toward the spinal column. In the more severe cases where [paralysis] did travel all the way up the legs, there were people who had lower spine permanent damage which led to impotence and incontinence. And in a couple of the most extreme cases, there were brain problems associated with it as well.
I talked to a number of the brain machine operators and they all just said it was too fast. They couldn’t control the trigger very well at that speed, and so things would spatter. The trigger would be released when the nozzle wasn’t fully inserted, and there was just a lot more brain matter in the air. I don’t think Hormel could have foreseen that. However, when you decide to run your line speed at 50 percent faster than you’ve ever run it before, you are essentially running an experiment on all of your workers.
The real story here is that they had a rare circumstance where the outcome of this increase was so dramatic that it actually caught the public’s attention and made people question the wisdom of the line speed. The irony is that, if this had increased the rate of fingers being amputated or arms being sliced, nobody would have known or cared.
Guernica: Many of the immigrants you interviewed for this book faced a grueling journey from Mexico to Nebraska, only to spend their days working for little pay in a dangerous workplace with the threat of deportation—not to mention the anti-immigrant backlash in their new environment. What struck you the most about the attitudes of these workers? What keeps them coming?
Ted Genoways: When you look at a town like Schuyler, Nebraska, or Fremont, Nebraska, almost all of the immigrants in that initial wave were coming from one town in Mexico. It didn’t take very long for the word to spread. Chichihualco, in Guerrero, is a town of about 10,000 people. It’s up in the mountains. It’s far away from everything else. Everybody knows everybody. And so, in the same way the word spread initially that there were jobs along this established route, the word has since filtered back that maybe it’s not worth it.
Guernica: Is there is a sense, in towns like Chichihualco, that several generations of people who took these meatpacking jobs in Nebraska really helped save the community?
Ted Genoways: There is increased prosperity on both sides of the border with this, and that’s really where the driver of all of this is. These are terrible jobs, but if you can stick them out for five years, the income you can make in the US is ten to fifteen times what you can make in Mexico. And if you can make fifteen times your normal income for five years, you’re kind of set, right? Some of your other family members will probably be set. The model is exactly that. And so some people return and bring some of that wealth and prosperity back to the village.
[Some workers choose to remain] in Schuyler. In a town of 6,000 people, give or take, 4,000 of them are Hispanic, but they’re also all from the same small town in Mexico, so they’ve all known each other since they were kids, they all know each other’s families, and you see why there are mass migrations. There’s a community there of people who really know each other. It just so happens they’re in rural Nebraska instead of in central Mexico.
I have to say that, during my reporting in Schuyler, I always had to fight my tendency to say, “We need to all get together and do something!” It’s a town where about two-thirds of all the people are Mexican-born, and they have a white mayor, an all-white city council, an all-white chamber of commerce, and an all-white police force. You sit on the main drag on the north side of downtown Schuyler, and there’s the Latino club on one side, and there’s Tiny’s bar on the other side. The white people are pouring out of Tiny’s at closing time, falling down drunk, driving away. And the people are coming out of the Latino club, and there’s a fleet of police cars there to pull them over as they pull out of the parking lot. How long are you going to put up with that?
Guernica: In your reporting on the Fremont ordinance banning landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, you ask, “Who will determine the face of small-town America? Will it be a de facto decision made by the unstoppable tide of changing demographics or will it be preordained and enforced by decree?” What’s your hunch?
Ted Genoways: I have to say that my feeling, increasingly, is that the entire middle of the country is changing in ways that no one can stop or control. Towns like Schuyler are becoming less and less exceptional all the time. More and more in the rural Midwest, you go into small agricultural towns, and there are two kinds: the ones that are being supported by the presence of recent Hispanic immigrants, and towns that are dying. With the towns that say, “Absolutely not. We’re not going to have anybody who doesn’t look like us live here”—those towns are going to do themselves in. And the ones that are going to be left are the towns that have survived in the way so much of America has always survived, by welcoming immigrants and by becoming a new version of themselves.
You tell the public that the people who pick their produce or who work on the meatpacking line suffer from permanent injuries, and people just seem to accept that. But you tell them there’s gluten in their gluten-free bread, and they go crazy.
Guernica: You must have felt, at some point, that you were writing in the shadow of Upton Sinclair. Did the phenomenon of The Jungle affect the way you went about reporting The Chain?
Ted Genoways: Sinclair was lurking in the background all the time, absolutely. And within his shadow are spots that are inhabited by Eric Schlosser [author of Fast Food Nation] and everybody else.
The specter of Sinclair, for me, was him saying, “I aimed at the public’s heart and, by accident, I hit it in the stomach.” That’s the story of everyone who tries to write about the plight of food workers. You tell the public that the people who pick their produce or who work on the meatpacking line suffer from permanent injuries, that they are exploited in all sorts of ways from wage theft to sexual harassment, and people just seem to accept that. But you tell them there’s gluten in their gluten-free bread, and they go crazy. And to some extent that’s understandable, because the food that you put on your table is what sustains your family, and there’s hardly anything more emotionally important than that.
I wish that Upton Sinclair’s mission from more than a century ago were more fully realized. I wish that it wasn’t still so difficult to get people to factor in worker safety. But that’s the big reason that, at a fairly early stage, I said, “Well, this can’t just be a book about worker safety. This has got to be about how worker safety, environmental quality, animal welfare, and food safety are all linked together.”
My fondest hope for the food movement would be that the animal welfare people start to get together with the water quality and the air quality people, and that the workers’ rights people get together with the food safety people. If those networks were working together and seeing how those issues are linked, I think there’d be a lot more political influence.