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The Surprising Story Behind Spam (The Food)


The regular host of this program, Michel Martin, is on the road this week for her live event series Going There. She's off to the nation's breadbasket to talk about food in Kansas City, Mo., on Tuesday. She's hosting a panel looking at how modern agriculture affects our health and the environment and also the livelihoods of those who get the food we eat to our tables. To give you a little taste, we're about to hear a bit of her conversation with one of her guests who will be at that event. Ted Genoways wrote a book called "The Chain: Farm, Factory, And The Fate Of Our Food." It's all about the making of spam from pig to can. And he also examined the changes to the meatpacking industry.

TED GENOWAYS: There was a period in the middle part of the 20th century when meatpacking was certainly hard work. But it was high-paying and it was a blue-collar job that allowed for a working middle-class to be able to buy a home, to be able to buy a car, to able to send their kids to college.

And I mean, that's very much the way that my own grandfather used the meatpacking industry. Those things started to disappear in the 1980s and forward as the meatpacking industry really sought to deregulate and to get as much control as they could over the USDA, which is the body that is supposed to be inspecting and to be ensuring the safety of these plants.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: What are some of things that you want us to be thinking about as we start having these important conversations around food and how it's prepared and how it's delivered to us as a result of your reporting on the chain?

GENOWAYS: Well, I mean, the first thing is to consider all of the hands that your food passes through on the way to your table. I think it's very easy to think of the grocery store as the source of our food, when, in fact, there's a whole supply chain. There's a whole process behind getting that food as far as your hometown grocery store. And many of the people who do that work are underpaid. They are often working in dangerous conditions. And to me, it is very hard for us to kind of legislate from the shopping aisle.

I think it's hard to make change by our consuming habits. What I think that means is that we have to make ourselves aware of what the conditions are and what can be done about them at a kind of regulatory and legislative level. And we need to be active in pushing for the sorts of conditions for workers that we would hope for for ourselves.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, I understand - and first of all, we'll see you in Kansas City - but I understand that your latest project is about tequila.

GENOWAYS: That is correct.

MARTIN: And so I understand that you're getting on intimate acquaintance with tequila (laughter).

GENOWAYS: That's also true.

MARTIN: Tell me about that. What attracted you to that project?

GENOWAYS: Well, the tequila book is actually kind of another agricultural and food book in disguise. The tequila industry is entirely dependent on a single crop - the blue agave. It's an endlessly fascinating industry.

MARTIN: And maybe you'll be bringing us some samples?

GENOWAYS: I could arrange that, easily.


MARTIN: Ted Genoways is the author of "The Chain: Farm, Factory, And The Fate Of Our Food." We reached him in Mexico, where he's researching, as he told us, a new book about tequila. But he'll be joining me and our other guests in Kansas City on Tuesday for a live conversation at the Gem Theater. It's called How We Eat. It's all about the choices we make with our food, the decisions all of us are making about it.

We'll speak with farmers and foragers and chefs and other people who think big thoughts about food. You can follow the conversation on Tuesday from wherever you are using the hashtag #HowWeEat. Ted Genoways, thanks so much for joining us, and we'll see you on Tuesday.

GENOWAYS: That sounds great. I'm looking forward to it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.