I caught a screening of a new documentary called Food, Inc. last night and was impressed that the filmmakers went where so many refuse to go when it comes to criticizing the food industry. The movie talked about the exploitation of undocumented workers, and how American consumers benefit from the ranks of immigrants who work in the fields and the factories for pitiful wages.
The filmmakers followed Eduardo Peña, a UFCW organizer in North Carolina who works with Smithfield workers. You know Smithfield. Its Tar Heel plant in North Carolina is the largest pork slaughterhouse in the world, processing 32,000 pigs a day. It was the same plant found responsible for some of the tainted pork from that little old disease called…swine flu earlier this year. And the company also allegedly called in immigration raids two years ago in retaliation of workers who were trying to organize themselves.
This time, the cameras catch ICE carrying out a raid on families in a trailer park near Smithfield. Bulletproof vests and ICE caps on, guns drawn, they kick in the door of a family’s home and throw a woman into the back of a police car. According to Peña, Smithfield tips off ICE regularly, giving them the names of a couple of undocumented employees at a time; ICE raids people’s homes in exchange for staying off the plant’s floor. It is terrifying footage. The segment brings into stark relief the cynical collusion between corporation and government and the exploitation of workers, undocumented and not, at every level.
It’s all so much more invisible because meat processing plants are usually hidden in backwater towns. Who could stand the smell of acres and acres of soon-to-be pork and beef, standing around in their own shit all day long? It’s why you probably never heard of Greeley, Colorado or Hyrum, Utah or Postville, Iowa before they made headlines as the site of many of the major workplace raids in recent years. (Swift in 2006 and Agriprocessors in 2008 sound familiar?)
For people who can’t stand the presence of immigrants in their neighborhood but spring for the $0.79 per pound holiday ham, news flash! A largely invisible workforce works for severely depressed wages to make that ham so cheap for you.
What else do we find out? Scary facts about the consolidation of meat and poultry processing companies in recent decades. Stories of animal abuse, environmental degradation—the image of tons of pig manure being washed downstream was particularly appetizing—and deadly food contamination. An analysis of the incestuous nature of the corn lobby and government regulatory agencies.
The unspoken political kick in the ass message of the film is that those who care about the environment, food safety and sustainable agriculture, should also care about workers’ rights.
So what can we do about it? The corruption has rotted the food industry to the core, and it’s not just meatpacking plants that are addicted to cheap, exploitable labor. Interestingly enough, the filmmakers’ tips (farmers’ markets and personal gardens) don’t offer a lot in the way of solutions for immigrant workers. We need just immigration reform, an end to pointless employer sanctions, open borders, and workers’ rights to organize upheld.
So it’s true, we are what we eat, but when it comes to food safety and sustainability, we also are only as good as what we can pressure the government to deliver when it comes to immigration reform.
For more about immigration and organizing in the food industry, check out Rinku’s latest book The Accidental American.