Spam’s Shame

Foodies—and everyone else—should shun Hormel’s famous canned meat.

Cans of Spam are displayed on a shelf at Cal Mart grocery store.

Cans of Spam are displayed on a shelf at Cal Mart grocery store on Jan. 3, 2013, in San Francisco.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last Monday, in a Slate essay titled “Give Spam a Chance,” Anna Weaver wrote that the canned foodstuff “deserves a better reputation.” She rightly notes that Spam fed American troops during World War II, especially in the Pacific, and was also a “godsend” to isolated Hawaii. To the list of positive contributions made by Hormel, which produces Spam, I would add the institution of the salaried wage scale, the advent of pensions for retired workers, and the creation of light-work positions for war veterans and workers injured on the line. By the close of the 1940s, a position at one of the company’s plants was a coveted blue-collar job. As one newspaper reported at the time, “Most Hormel workers own their homes and have cars, refrigerators, well-dressed, well-fed, well-educated children.” But at the dawning of the 1950s—and after—the pace of industrial meat production led Hormel to make questionable choices with often dire consequences. For Weaver to say that Spam “aligns quite nicely with current foodie trends” perverts everything that enlightened eaters embrace—and, worse, elides the trauma that Big Meat has wrought on the American farmer and factory worker.

In the decades after World War II, Hormel’s business model revolved around increasing production. In the 1950s the company was at the forefront of treating fodder with antibiotics and weaning piglets rapidly, in order to get more litters from each sow. Hormel pioneered the practice of moving packinghouses away from urban centers, like Omaha or the Twin Cities, in favor of setting up shop in small towns, closer to farms and feedlots. No longer competing with other packers for animals brought to auction at sprawling stockyards, Hormel could use its control of local markets to depress prices and pressure farmers into exclusive production arrangements. In the 1980s the company’s hard-nosed attitude toward union workers led to an acrimonious 13-month strike, after which Hormel recruited non-union (and often illegal) labor willing to work for lower pay and endure faster line speeds.

By 2011 Hormel’s website boasted that the company could turn out 44,000 cans of Spam per hour—and the company announced that it would be expanding just to keep pace with demand. I’m not sure how many well-heeled foodies will heed Weaver’s advice to give Spam a chance; it has, however, experienced a renaissance among poor Americans forced to turn to cheap sources of meat. But Spam comes with hidden costs. In the last three years, I have interviewed scores of line workers, union leaders, hog farmers, community organizers, local politicians and political activists, sociologists, and labor historians in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa—the principal states where Hormel breeds, feeds, and slaughters its hogs. The picture that has emerged is clear. Since the economic downturn, the spike in demand for Spam has created pressure up and down the supply chain—with terrible results for animals, workers, and consumers.

In 2006 Hormel—along with Cargill and Smithfield—gained a special exemption that allowed it to buy farmland and build hog confinement facilities in Iowa, as part of a settlement agreement following a lawsuit challenging the state’s anti-corporate-farming laws. With stockyards gone and the looming threat of feed-to-market monopolies, many farmers signed long-term contracts at below-market per-head prices and agreed to build giant hog confinement barns, where sows are artificially inseminated, fed antibiotics, and held in gestation and farrowing crates. In 2008 PETA ran a hidden-camera investigation of one such Iowa hog farm that supplies Hormel. The recordings showed workers beating sows with metal gate rods, shocking crippled or uncooperative sows with electric prods, kicking pregnant sows that were moving too slowly, and even shoving a herding cane into a sow’s vagina. As I have detailed in an article that will appear next month in Mother Jones, the investigation led to the conviction of six workers on charges related to animal cruelty and livestock neglect. In a statement released at the time, Hormel spokesperson Julie Craven said, “We find the images in the video appalling and they are inconsistent with our standards and industry standards for animal handling.” But one of the workers told me that he had been trained in these methods—and was only protecting himself. After 114 days held immobilized in gestation crates, he said, sows emerge ferocious and ready for a fight.

Bites or broken bones, however, are not the only risks for farm workers—or the people who live near confinement facilities. A study spearheaded by the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center at the University of Iowa found that roughly 70 percent of workers at factory farms, like the ones that supply Hormel, suffer from acute bronchitis from breathing nitrogen-heavy air and that emissions from these facilities “may constitute a public health hazard.” Also, the hog manure captured in enormous waste pits, processed, and sold to corn growers as fertilizer has pushed the nitrate levels of the Raccoon River to such dangerously high levels that the Des Moines Water Works issues “blue baby” alerts to warn parents not to give tap water to children. It’s true that Hormel isn’t solely to blame for this problem, but current nitrate levels in Iowa’s waterways (as high a 24 mg per liter) are nearly double what they were before the exemptions to the corporate-farming law. During the first week of May, the nitrate load surpassed the entire load from last year.

On these grounds alone, it’s startling that Weaver would hold up Spam as “a paragon of modern foodie ideals.” Most foodies—certainly those influenced by Michael Pollan, whom Weaver invokes—care a great deal about animal welfare, safe farming practices, and public health. They favor local, organically raised meat over factory-raised, ultra-processed protein that arrives canned into pink cubes. But Weaver goes still further, saying, “I’ve never seen a meat-eater turn up his nose at sausage or pâté—what rational basis is there, then, for eschewing their all-American cousin?” It’s hard to know where to begin. First, Spam, by volume, is more than 27 percent fat. Two slices of Spam (roughly 100 grams) constitute half of your recommended intake of saturated fat for the entire day. Worse still, Spam is preserved with vast quantities of salt (57 percent of your daily dose in those two slices). Regularly eating fat and sodium at such levels can lead to health ills from heart disease to kidney failure. Here’s another disturbing truth: Spam’s pink color comes from sodium nitrite. Weaver says you’re “an idiot if you eat [Spam] straight out of the can.” Instead, she recommends stir-frying or getting it hot off the griddle—as it is served in McDonald’s in Hawaii. Unfortunately, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund warn that eating meat preserved with sodium nitrite increases your risk of colorectal cancer—particularly if it is fried or grilled.

Though most middle- and upper-class Americans think of that pink block of oversalted ham and pork shoulder as nothing more than a novelty meat, during times of war and economic downturn, Spam has often been a reliable way for struggling Americans to keep affordable meat on the dinner table. Right now, as recession-struck families eat more and more of the stuff (driving Hormel’s stock prices to record levels), Spam is contributing to the nationwide epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and cancer. In the process, thousands of animals have been abused, Midwestern waterways have been poisoned, and American agriculture has been stretched to its limit. In official corporate literature, Hormel emphasizes its commitment to reducing its environmental impact, handling animals humanely, and reducing sodium in various product lines—but, as a rule, it does not respond directly to critical media inquiries. I reached out to Nicole L. Behne, the Spam senior product manager quoted in Weaver’s article, but received no reply. Queries to several other communications representatives were similarly ignored.

Weaver asks that you “open your mind” to Spam. I would urge instead that we open our eyes.

Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.