Jeff Ettinger was the SPAM king. Now he wants to be a congressman. There’s only one catch.

Democratic Minnesota congressional candidate Jeff Ettinger — the former president, CEO and chairman of Hormel Foods — boasts on his campaign website that he was named “Most Responsible CEO of the Year.” But it’s unclear what he takes responsibility for, as Ettinger’s tenure at Hormel wasn’t everything.

Ettinger, who joined the multinational meat processing giant in 1989 and was appointed CEO in 2004, oversaw a range of abuses against his company and its suppliers, including environmental allegations, safety breaches and six-figure settlements for back wages and workplace discrimination against women, records show.

Hormel, a Minnesota-based Fortune 500 company that makes Dinty Moore stew and SPAM — alongside a buffet of other products — is also still embroiled with other pork processors in a class-action lawsuit that retailers first filed in 2018 for nearly 30 separate ones Complainants all claimed Hormel was involved in a conspiracy dating back at least to 2009.

Today, however, Ettinger appears to be the favorite in his Democratic primary, where he is up against former White House ethics attorney Richard Painter.

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

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

Ettinger campaign spokesman Charlie Rybak declined to comment.

Ettinger worked at Hormel for three decades, where he rose from internal consultant to top manager of the company. He resigned as President and CEO in 2016 and received $35 million in compensation; the next year he resigned from his presidency.

During his time, Ettinger expanded Hormel’s product line, added new companies to its portfolio of brands, and established significant operations in overseas markets, particularly China.

But this explosive growth appears to have come at a heavy price. As Ettinger increased Hormel’s footprint and production, the company and its suppliers faced increasing violations and fines, along with a flurry of damning news reports, whistleblower complaints, and animal rights activist video stings.

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

These diseases were the focus of a detailed Hormel exposé from 2012 Mother Jones. QPP was an exclusive supplier to Hormel at the time, buying pigs from Hormel, processing them at a neighboring facility using Hormel equipment, and then selling them back. Hormel and QPP are so close that Hormel has built a wall between the two entities. but Mother Jones reported that it was primarily an indiscriminate distinction, citing, among other things, a class action lawsuit against QPP in which a judge added Hormel as a “common employer” and defendant, citing, among other things, the company’s “control over QPP.”

At the factory, a device — a compressed air device known as a “brain machine” used to liquefy pig brains to sell in South Korea and China — sprayed workers with it The New York Times described as a “fog of pig brain tissue”.

In 2006, the year Ettinger took first place, the demand for cheap meat rose sharply. In response, Hormel increased production to what The guard described as “breakneck speeds”. In turn, Hormel saw an increase in injuries. “Within weeks” of the 2006 acceleration, illness emerged – a severe neurological condition that triggered a self-destructive autoimmune response and weakened the workers’ limbs. It repeated itself for years and affected more than 20 employees before the factory shut down its compressed air technology.

Under Ettinger’s supervision, Hormel continued to source meat from suppliers facing allegations of animal cruelty and neglect. And Ettinger paid to discredit activist groups trying to expose these practices.

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

Two years later, a PETA investigation into one of Hormel’s suppliers resulted in 22 charges of animal cruelty and neglect. The organization, which bought shares in Hormel to help make company decisions, called on the company to sever ties with suppliers exposed for cruelty violations. The group cited a series of incidents, including physical punches, kicks and punches, which generated “significant media attention,” according to a 2010 Securities and Exchange Commission filing. Hormel declined to take any action.

Two years later, however, after more videos surfaced, Hormel acquiesced to one of those demands — to stop using gestation crates, which were so small that pregnant pigs often couldn’t move.

In 2015, more undercover footage, this time at QPP, sparked an investigation by the Department of Agriculture. An internal USDA whistleblower described a “food safety nightmare” at QPP, blaming production demand.

“In my opinion, the only standards they wanted to meet were the standards the company had for production,” this whistleblower told Food Safety News in 2015.

Hormel condemned the practices. In 2016, another disturbing video prompted Hormel to suspend his contract with a Nebraska pork supplier. The next year, Hormel launched a separate investigation into the same supplier, this time at an Oklahoma plant.

Also in 2016, the Department of Labor ordered Hormel to pay $550,000 in arrears to 403 applicants at a Nebraska pig processing plant after finding gender discrimination in the company’s hiring practices. Hormel also agreed to hire 37 women on “retroactive tenure” without admission of liability as part of the terms. That same year, Hormel entered into a separate gender discrimination agreement with the DOL, in which the company agreed to pay $491,861 in back wages to 339 women who were denied entry-level positions at a Jennie-O turkey operation.

The treatment of their workers also had legal ramifications.

In 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Hormel stole workers’ wages and ordered the company to pay $195,000 in unpaid wages to “hundreds of workers” for the time they worked with the and undressing of equipment and required clothing.

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

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

Ettinger officially parted ways with the company in 2017 when he stepped down as CEO. But the company’s legal troubles from his tenure continue.

The year before Ettinger resigned, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued Hormel for misleading advertising, claiming its “100% natural” and “clean ingredients” promises were false. That lawsuit was dismissed in 2019, but last year an appeals court overturned that decision and took the case to court.

But a major ongoing lawsuit stemming from corporate activities during the Ettinger years could have a bigger impact. A year after Ettinger’s resignation in 2018, the company was hit with the first in a series of allegations of a year-long price-fixing conspiracy stretching back to 2009.

In the lawsuit, 13 Minnesota consumers accused Hormel and its competitors, including Tyson Foods, JBS USA and Smithfield, of conspiring to raise pork prices. The companies had allegedly been illegally exchanging domestic market data since 2009 and coordinating production “with the intent and anticipated result of rising pork prices in the United States.”

Hormel called the lawsuit “completely unfounded.”

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

In all, nearly 30 separate complainants have accused the meat companies of taking part 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 head to the polls in Tuesday’s special primary, where a packed field will be vying to serve out the remainder of the late GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s term after Hagedorn’s death earlier this year. If Ettinger wins the Democratic primary, he’ll move on to the August general election, where he’ll face a Republican opponent — possibly Hagedorn’s widow. Jeff Ettinger was the SPAM king. Now he wants to be a congressman. There’s only one catch.


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