Working in a Spam Factory Is Brutal

Most of us know that Spam is made from the most unsavory parts of a pig. And most of us know that factory workers are treated horribly by their overlords. But that doesn't make Ted Genoways' feature in Mother Jones, which investigates the health hazards of working in a Spam factory, any less unsettling.

For years workers at the Hormel/QPP processing factory have been suffering health issues as a result of working on the job. And technological advances have made those hazards worse in some ways. Let's revisit the shadowy side of the food industry, shall we?

According to Mother Jones, employees (most of whom are undocumented workers with fake names) are regularly covered in pig brain jelly, which sprays everywhere when it's blasted out via water hose:

On the other side, Matthew 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.)

The implementation of conveyor belts and electric knives for scraping meat off pigs has led to simplified, monotonous actions, leading to issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome:

Since 1989, the line speed at QPP had been steadily increasing-from 750 heads per hour when the plant opened to 1,350 per hour in 2006, though the workforce barely increased. To speed production, the company installed a conveyor system and humming automatic knives throughout the plant, reducing skilled tasks to single motions. Workers say nearly everyone suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome or some repetitive stress injury, but by October 2007, there were signs of something else.

And ultimately, due to the increased slaughter rate, long hours spent standing on their feet, and time spent covered in pig brains, these workers started to suffer neurological and autoimmune effects:

Six months earlier, when Matthew Garcia was sent back to the Mayo Clinic neurology department, Dr. P. James Dyck, explained to him that there was an "epidemic of neuropathy" that was affecting QPP workers-a newly discovered form of demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy. Inhaling aerosolized brains had caused his body to produce antibodies, but because porcine and human neurological cells are so similar, the antibodies began destroying Garcia's own nerves, as well.

The new disease theory made sense, except that, according to company officials, QPP had been blowing brains, off and on, for more than a decade. So why did workers fall ill now and not earlier? The answer is complex. First, in April 2006, the line speed increased from 1,300 pig heads moving down the conveyor belt each hour to 1,350. This speedup was slight, but it was just the latest in a series of gradual increases. "The line speed, the line speed," Lachance told the AP [43], when recounting patient interviews. "That's what we heard over and over again." The line had been set at 900 heads per hour when the brain harvesting first began in 1996-meaning that the rate had increased a full 50 percent over the decade, whereas the number of workers had hardly risen. Garcia told me that the speed made it hard to keep up. Second, to match the pace, the company switched from a foot-operated trigger to an automatic system tripped by inserting the nozzle into the brain cavity, but sometimes the blower would misfire and spatter. Complaints about this had led to the installation of the plexiglass shield between the worker manning the brain machine and the rest of the head table. Third, the increased speed had caused pig heads to pile up at the opening in the shield. At some point in late 2006, the jammed skulls, pressed forward by the conveyor belt, had actually cracked the plastic, allowing more mist to drift over the head table. Pablo Ruiz, the process-control auditor, had attempted to patch the fracture with plastic bags. (To this day, Ruiz says he suffers from burning feet and general exhaustion.) Fourth, the longer hours worked in 2007 had, quite simply, upped workers' exposure.

And if you think this sounds a bit like Upton Sinclair's 1910 book, The Jungle, you're not alone:

Even after his diagnosis, Emiliano Ballesta was reluctant to transfer to another place on the factory line. His job, removing sinewy cheek meat from the tight nooks of the skull (a job known as "chiseling"), requires more handwork than most tasks at the head table. In the era of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, workers used an actual chisel to pry open and dislocate hogs' jaws, then hacked away muscles from the cheeks and temples. But today most factories use a mechanized jaw-puller for the brute work, and workers make precise cuts with a straight blade, honed to razor sharpness and handled with a chainmail glove. The skill required made Ballesta's job one of the most prestigious and-at $13.15 per hour following a raise-highest-paying positions at the head table.

And Hormel/QPP, being the classy organization they are, offered a whole $40,000 to Matthew Garcia, who suffered permanent physical disorders from being covered in pig brains, under the condition that he go work somewhere else.

The rest of Genoways' feature tells the story of many of these workers, who faced similar issues while working at the Spam factory. Be sure to read it over at [Mother Jones].