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.
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. They 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.
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.