He Was the King of SPAM. Now He Wants to Be a Congressman. There’s Just One Catch.

·8 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Reuters

Minnesota Democratic congressional candidate Jeff Ettinger—the former president, CEO, and chair of Hormel Foods—boasts on his campaign website that he was named “Most Responsible CEO of the year.” But it’s unclear what he’s taking responsibility for, because Ettinger’s tenure at Hormel wasn’t all gravy.

Ettinger, who was hired at the multinational meat processing giant in 1989 and appointed CEO in 2004, oversaw a number of violations against his company and its suppliers, including environmental citations, safety violations, and six-figure settlements for back wages and employment discrimination against women, records show.

Hormel, a Minnesota-based Fortune 500 company that makes Dinty Moore stew and SPAM—among a buffet of other products—is also still mired with other pork processors in a class action lawsuit that retailers first brought in 2018. The lawsuit has grown to include nearly 30 separate complainants, all of them alleging that Hormel took part in a conspiracy stretching back to at least 2009.

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Today, however, Ettinger appears to be the favorite in his Democratic primary, where he faces off against former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter.

But over the last decade, before Ettinger became someone lobbying for Democratic votes in a primary, he was someone who gave to both sides of the aisle. Most notably, Ettinger maxed out his contributions to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, while not giving a dollar to President Barack Obama that year, or in 2008. In 2016, with Donald Trump on the ballot, Ettinger also gave $5,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee—the arm of the GOP dedicated to re-electing Senate Republicans.

And last year, Ettinger gave Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) $1,000.

Ettinger campaign spokesperson Charlie Rybak declined comment.

Ettinger worked at Hormel for three decades, where he rose from in-house counsel to the company’s top executive. He stepped down as president and CEO in 2016, while collecting $35 million in compensation; the next year, he resigned his chairmanship.

In his time, Ettinger expanded Hormel’s product line, adding new companies to its stable of brands, and establishing major operations in overseas markets, most notably in China.

But that explosive growth appears to have come at a steep cost. As Ettinger increased Hormel’s footprint and production, the company and its suppliers began to see increased violations and fines, along with a host of scathing news reports, whistleblower complaints, and video stings from animal safety advocates.

Perhaps the most notorious issue was the appearance of a mysterious neurological disease that struck more than 20 workers at Hormel partner Quality Pork Processing between 2006 and 2008.

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Those illnesses were the focus of a 2012 longform Hormel exposé in Mother Jones. QPP was at the time an exclusive Hormel supplier, buying hogs from Hormel, processing them at an adjacent facility with Hormel equipment, then selling them back. Hormel and QPP are so close that Hormel built a wall between the two entities. But Mother Jones reported that it was mostly a distinction without a difference, citing—among other things—a class-action lawsuit against QPP where a judge added Hormel as a “joint employer” and defendant, citing among other things the company’s “control over QPP.”

At the plant, one piece of equipment—a compressed-air device known as “the brain machine” that was used to liquify hog brains to sell in South Korea and China—was spraying workers with what The New York Times described as a “mist of pig brain tissue.”

In 2006, the year Ettinger took the top spot, demand for cheap meat surged. In response, Hormel jacked up production to what The Guardian described as “breakneck speeds.” In turn, Hormel saw a spike in injuries. “Within weeks” of the 2006 acceleration, a disease appeared—a severe neurological illness that triggered a self-destructive autoimmune response and debilitated workers’ limbs. It recurred for years, affecting more than 20 employees workers, before the plant discontinued its compressed-air technique.

Under Ettinger’s watch, Hormel continued to source meat from suppliers riddled with allegations of animal abuse and neglect. And Ettinger paid to discredit activist groups who sought to expose those practices.

In 2005, when Ettinger was president and officially appointed CEO, Hormel paid $50,000 to fund a documentary film designed to undermine animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The check was signed personally by Ettinger, according to “The Chain” author Ted Genoways, who also reported Ettinger backed a second anti-PETA film, “Your Mommy Kills Animals.”

Two years later, a PETA investigation of a Hormel supplier landed 22 charges of animal abuse and neglect. The organization, which bought shares in Hormel to gain a voice in corporate decisions, demanded the company cut ties with suppliers who had been exposed for cruelty violations. The group cited a number of incidents, including physical beatings, kicking, and prodding, which generated “considerable media attention,” according to a 2010 Securities and Exchange Commission filing. Hormel declined to take action.

Two years later, however, after more video emerged, Hormel acquiesced to one of those demands—to stop using gestation crates, which were so small that pregnant pigs often could not move.

In 2015, more undercover footage, this time at QPP, triggered a Department of Agriculture investigation. One internal USDA whistleblower described a “food safety nightmare” at QPP, and laid the blame on production demand.

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“In my opinion, the only standards they were concerned about meeting were the standards that the company had for production,” this whistleblower told Food Safety News in 2015.

Hormel condemned the practices. In 2016, more disturbing video led Hormel to suspend its contract with a Nebraska pork supplier. The next year, Hormel launched a separate investigation into the same supplier, this time at an Oklahoma facility.

Also in 2016, the Department of Labor ordered Hormel to pay $550,000 in back wages to 403 female job applicants at a Nebraska hog processing facility, after finding gender discrimination in the company’s hiring practices. Hormel, without admitting liability, also agreed to hire 37 women with “retroactive seniority” as part of the terms. That same year, Hormel struck a separate gender discrimination agreement with the DOL, in which the company agreed to pay $491,861 in back wages to 339 women denied entry-level jobs at a Jennie-O turkey plant.

The treatment of its workers has also had legal consequences.

In 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Hormel had stolen worker pay, ordering the company to dole out $195,000 in back wages to “hundreds of workers” for time spent donning and removing equipment and required clothing.

A 2013 Harper’s Magazine report revealed that Hormel plants are “occupied largely by undocumented immigrants willing to work twice as fast for lower pay.”

But in 2007, Ettinger claimed it was “next to impossible” to tell whether its foreign workers were in the country legally. That year, about 50 Latinos were arrested in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in Willmar, Minnesota. According to an Minnesota Public Radio report of the event, a large section of the immigrant population worked at the nearby Hormel plant. In 2014, another ICE raid netted six people at Hormel’s Nebraska facility.

Ettinger officially cut ties with the company in 2017, when he resigned as chairman of the board. But the company’s legal woes from his tenure have continued.

The year before Ettinger resigned, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued Hormel for deceptive advertising, alleging its “100% natural” and “clean ingredients” promises were false. That suit was dismissed in 2019, but last year, an appeals court reversed that decision, bringing the case to trial.

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But a larger ongoing lawsuit from corporate activity during the Ettinger years could carry larger ramifications. The year after Ettinger resigned, in 2018, the company was hit with the first in what would become a series of allegations of a years-long price-fixing conspiracy, reaching back to 2009.

In the lawsuit, 13 Minnesota consumers accused Hormel and its competitors, including Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and Smithfield, of colluding to inflate pork prices. The companies had allegedly illegally shared internal market data since 2009, and coordinated production “with the intent and expected result of increasing pork prices in the United States.”

Hormel decried the suit as “completely without merit.”

Over the years, the plaintiffs multiplied. In 2021, Sysco and Subway filed lawsuits against the group of companies. Restaurants including Jimmy Johns, Buffalo Wild Wings, filed their own complaint later that year. And in December, grocers got involved, with a class action from retailers including Kroger and Hy-Vee.

In all, nearly 30 separate complainants have accused the meat companies of participating in the conspiracy. Two have settled—Smithfield and JBS. As part of the terms, JBS agreed to cooperate with the plaintiffs against the remaining defendants, including Hormel.

Voters will hit the polls on Tuesday in the special primary election, where a crowded field is vying to serve out the remainder of the late GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s term, after Hagedorn died earlier this year. If Ettinger takes the Democratic primary, he moves on to the general election in August, where he’ll face a Republican opponent—possibly Hagedorn’s widow.

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