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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Quite A Transformation

Nov 26th, 2011

And I thought Spam sucked out of the can.

Image via MoJo
A few months ago, Ted Genoways profiled the hellish conditions of Hormel employees for Mother Jones.

It is an astounding piece which traces Hormel's evolution over the last eighty years from one of the most labor friendly industrial-food operations to one of the most dangerous and even legally questionable.

During the transformative 1970s, the company began a rapid journey towards greater exploitation of illegal labor and wage-slashing.

Hormel's primary distinction during a mid eighties labor dispute seems to have been having engineered the creation of a whole new corporation, QPP, through which an elaborate series of shutdowns and sub-leases were arranged, effectively de-unionizing roughly half of their operations. There were "even rumors that QPP recruited laborers in Mexico."

This is now, regrettably, par for the course in the good old U.S. of A. But, there is another, more frightening development. Hormel may have, in fact, made a calculated set of decisions to ignore widespread worker illnesses rather than invest in more efficient safety precautions. Genoways writes:

"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. Workers from QPP's kill floor were coming to Carole Bower, the plant's occupational health nurse, with increasingly familiar complaints: numbness and tingling in their extremities, chronic fatigue, searing skin pain. Bower started noticing workers so tender that they struggled with the stairs to the top-floor locker rooms, high above the roar of the factory line.

Six workers were referred to Richard Schindler, a doctor at the Austin Medical Center who'd first seen Matthew Garcia. Garcia had returned a second time to the brain machine, worked four-hour days, then six hours—but his symptoms soon returned. He began falling on the plant floor, his legs numb and motionless under him. Schindler found that Garcia and another brain-machine operator were the most advanced cases. Besides Garcia and the six workers referred by Bower, Schindler had seen another five men and women with similar symptoms—all workers at QPP. Schindler believed they were suffering from something like the rare disorder Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP)—death of the peripheral nerves caused by damage to the fatty neural covering known as the myelin sheath. He emailed a group of neurologists at the Mayo Clinic for advice.

One, Daniel Lachance, was struck by the case histories. He had seen a woman in 2005 who worked at QPP and had sought treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome. After seeing her EMG and other tests, Lachance suspected a more ominous nerve condition—but the woman returned to Mexico before her spinal fluid could be tested. Lachance remembered Garcia, too, from his hospitalization the year before. Steroids had helped reduce the swelling of his nerves, but doctors could never identify the cause of his spinal inflammation. When Lachance checked his employment history, he discovered that Garcia worked at QPP.

But Schindler was describing a dozen concurrent cases. "Those types of illness seem to, statistically, come up in the population at a rate of two per 100,000," Lachance told me later. "So here, over the course of a couple of months, I was aware of up to a dozen individuals from one town of 22,000 who all happened to work in one place." Lachance brought the affected workers in, one by one, and crossed off items from a laundry list of diseases and disorders. It wasn't mad cow or trichinosis. It wasn't a simple muscular disorder like carpal tunnel syndrome. It wasn't cancer or a virus. It wasn't bacteria or a parasite. Lachance concluded that the slaughterhouse illness was likely some kind of autoimmune disorder.

If you think the involvement of such prominent health invetigators has led to improvements, you're very, very wrong. The whole of Genoway's piece must be read to be believed.

The take-away, beyond the obvious labor and wage issues, is that eating Hormel products is roughly complicit with an endorsement of slaughter and butcher factory practices that would have made Upton Sinclair blush.

Don't. Open. That. Can.

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