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The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret

First, Hormel gutted the union. Then it sped up the line. And when the pig-brain machine made workers sick, they got canned.

Trucks outside the Hormel factory

On the cut-and-kill floor of Quality Pork Processors Inc. in Austin, Minnesota, the wind always blows. From the open doors at the docks where drivers unload massive trailers of screeching pigs, through to the "warm room" where the hogs are butchered, to the plastic-draped breezeway where the parts are handed over to Hormel for packaging, the air gusts and swirls, whistling through the plant like the current in a canyon. In the first week of December 2006, Matthew Garcia felt feverish and chilled on the blustery production floor. He fought stabbing back pains and nausea, but he figured it was just the flu—and he was determined to tough it out.

Garcia had gotten on at QPP only 12 weeks before and had been stuck with one of the worst spots on the line: running a device known simply as the "brain machine"—the last stop on a conveyor line snaking down the middle of a J-shaped bench [DC] called the "head table." Every hour, more than 1,300 severed pork heads go sliding along the belt. Workers slice off the ears, clip the snouts, chisel the cheek meat. caption TK Matthew GarciaThey scoop out the eyes, carve out the tongue, and scrape the palate meat from the roofs of mouths. Because, famously, all parts of a pig are edible ("everything but the squeal," wisdom goes), nothing is wasted. A woman next to Garcia would carve meat off the back of each head before letting the denuded skull slide down the conveyor and through an opening in a plexiglass shield.

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.

Tasks at the head table are literally numbing. The steady hum of the automatic Whizard knives gives many workers carpal tunnel syndrome. And all you have to do is wait in the parking lot at shift change to see the shambling gait that comes from standing in one spot all day on the line. For eight hours, Garcia stood, slipping heads onto the brain machine's nozzle, pouring the glop into the drain, then dropping the empty skulls down a chute.

And then, as the global economy hit the skids and demand for cheap meat skyrocketed, QPP pushed for more and more overtime. By early December, Garcia would return home spent, his back and head throbbing. But this was more than ordinary exhaustion or some winter virus. On December 11, Garcia awoke to find he couldn't walk. His legs felt dead, paralyzed. His family rushed him to the Austin Medical Center, not far from the subdivided Victorian they rented on Third Street. Doctors there sent Garcia to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, about an hour away. By the time he arrived, he was running a high fever and complaining of piercing headaches. He underwent a battery of exams, including MRIs of his head and back. Every test revealed neurological abnormalities, most importantly a severe spinal-cord inflammation, apparently caused by an autoimmune response. It was as if his body was attacking his nerves.

Garcia inserted a compressed-air hose and blasted the pigs' brains into a pink slurry. One head every three seconds. 

By Christmas, Garcia had been bedridden for two weeks, and baffled doctors feared he might be suicidal. They sent a psychiatrist to prepare him for life in a wheelchair.

There is no Matthew Garcia.

Or, rather, Matthew Garcia is not his name. It's the made-up name I've given him to shield him from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I don't know his real name anyway, not the name his mother cooed when she cradled him in her arms. All I know is the name on his driver's license, his I-9 and ITIN, his medical records and workers' comp claim. There is no Matthew Garcia in Austin, Minnesota, and if you go looking, you won't find him, but then there's no Emiliano Ballesta or Miriam Angeles either. Not really. Because many QPP employees are working under a fake name with false papers and a phony address.

And not just the people on the kill floor. You see: QPP is simply another way of saying Hormel and its corporate headquarters in Dallas is just a tax-accounting firm in a poured-concrete office park along the LBJ Freeway. And if you leaf through the Austin phone book, you can find a listing for Kelly Wadding, the CEO of QPP, but if you drive there, you'll find no house, no such address.

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In Austin, such half-truths and agreed-upon lies are as much a part of the landscape as the slow-moving Cedar River. On one bank stands the Hormel plant, with its towering six-story hydrostatic Spam cooker and sprawling fenced compound, encompassing QPP and shielded from view by a 15-foot privacy wall. When I asked for a look inside, I got a chipper email from the spokeswoman: "They are state-of-the-art facilities (nothing to be squeamish about!) but media tours are not available." On the other bank is the Spam Museum, where former plant workers serve as Spambassadors, and the sanitized history of Hormel unfolds in more than 16,000 square feet of exhibits, artifacts, and tchotchkes.

One room is done up as the Provision Market, opened by George Hormel (pronounced HOR-mel to rhyme with "normal") in the Litchfield Building on Mill Street in November 1891. But the company we know today—and its most famous product—didn't emerge until after Hormel's son, Jay, took over in 1929. Jay Hormel was a masterful manager and a gambler in the true capitalist sense. In the trough of the Great Depression, he bet Americans would buy into the idea of low-cost canned dinners. Hormel chili, Dinty Moore stew, and Spam were born.

Around the same time, Hormel attempted to institute a progressive pension plan in which the company would contribute $1 to a worker's 20 cents per week. But he didn't bother pitching its benefits to employees; he simply instructed foremen to collect signatures—a style of leadership he later rued as "benevolent dictatorship." Wary line workers refused, and when one gave in, labor organizers incited a work stoppage. Local business leaders panicked. Hormel urged them to accept union labor in Austin. "I am not going to get mixed up in a fight in my hometown," he declared. But he was too late.

caption TKThe Spam Museum

In November, poorly armed union organizers, dissatisfied with the slow progress of negotiations, escorted Hormel from the general offices and shut down the plant's refrigeration system—threatening to spoil $3.6 million of meat. For three straight days, Hormel went to the picket line to address workers from an improvised platform and meet with union leaders. He brought the strike to a quick end by agreeing to a series of forward-looking incentives, including profit-sharing, merit pay, and the "Annual Wage Plan," an unheard-of salary system in an industry dominated by piecework and hourly rates. Hormel also agreed that increases in output would result in more pay for workers, and he even guaranteed them 52 weeks' notice prior to termination.

Fortune derided Hormel as the "red capitalist," but the moves earned him a matchless period of management-labor cooperation and national goodwill. During World War II, the company cranked out K-rations, sending canned meat up supply lines across the Pacific and securing Spam acclaim as the "meat that won the war." Hormel even created a "special workers" program, designed to assist veterans, in which up to 15 percent of the workforce could be given light duty if disabled. But all that started to change when the company passed out of family hands and fell under new corporate leadership that wasn't interested in Jay Hormel's progressive benefits. In 1975, future president Richard Knowlton began to negotiate an agreement that would build a whole new plant with the promise of reducing workloads—and allow him to gut longstanding incentive programs. That led to a bitter strike—and completed the transition from George A. Hormel & Co., the family business, to Hor-MEL, the corporation. But that era was about more than rebranding. It was the start of shell companies and shell games; this was when everyone learned to speak this local dialect of truth, when the cut-and-kill side of the operation became QPP, and the workforce became populated with undocumented immigrants working under false names.

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