Before I even stepped from my truck onto the gravel outside the New Fashion Pork hog confinement facility, Emily Erickson, the company's animal well-being and quality assurance manager, handed me a pair of stretchy white plastic footies to put over my shoes. It was a blustery day in September, the sky threatening snow—the first hint of winter, when cold, dry air stabilizes viruses and biosecurity becomes a topmost concern.
All of the hogs inside the confinement near Jackson, Minnesota, just north of the Iowa state line and on the headwaters of the Des Moines River, would be sold to Hormel Foods. Hormel would soon post record profits on the strength of sales of Spam to Asian markets and the expansion of the company's China operations. But Jim Snee, head of Hormel Foods International, announced that the company was making an even bigger push, to firmly establish Spam in Chinese grocery stores before products from its competitor Smithfield Foods, purchased by Shuanghui International in May, could elbow them out. As a major supplier to Hormel's Spam plants in Minnesota and Nebraska, New Fashion Pork was racing to keep pace with demand. The last thing the company could afford was an outbreak of disease.
To an outsider, the hog industry's vigilance against external pathogens—symbolized by those hygienic footies—can seem strangely at odds with its dismissal of concerns about the effects of its facilities on human...
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