Deep Trouble in America's Slaughterhouses

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tags: Upton Sinclair

Lauren Coodley is the author of Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual, published by University of Nebraska Press in September 2013.

When he was just twenty-five years old in 1904, Upton Sinclair went undercover into a meatpacking factory in Chicago. He wrote: “I sat at night in the homes of the workers, foreign born and native, and they told me their stories, one after one, and I made notes.” Sinclair went to the stockyards in the daytime where the workers risked their jobs to show him around. He found that by carrying a dinner pail, he could go anywhere.

When Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1905, his goal was to educate Americans on the brutal treatment of workers in the stockyards. Instead he almost singlehandedly brought about the creation of the FDA and the regulation of food safety. Sinclair later wrote “I aimed for their hearts but I hit their stomachs.” His passionate wish that readers would recognize the brutality that the workers endured was not realized. Americans responded to the book instead with outrage about the quality of their food. The Jungle was reprinted sixty-seven times over the next twenty-six years, and seventeen translations appeared within months of its American publication.

Sinclair continued to press the government for sweeping reforms in the industry. Upton Sinclair sent his book to President Theodore Roosevelt, who had been getting a hundred letters a day about it already. Sinclair remembered that Roosevelt wrote “that he was having the Department of Agriculture investigate the matter, and I replied that was like asking a burglar to determine his own guilt.”

Senator Albert Beveridge introduced a bill on May 22 to begin regulation of the meat industry. Sinclair worried that it would be killed in the House, so he met with the editor of the New York Times and explained that by publicizing the essence of the investigators’ report, he hoped to force Roosevelt to release the entire report. The story appeared on the front page of the paper, with descriptions even more shocking than those in The Jungle. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act along with the Meat Inspection Amendment, on June 30, 1906 -- a law which Senator Beveridge hailed proudly as “the most pronounced extension of federal power in every direction ever enacted.”

I would hate for Upton Sinclair to learn further that right now the USDA is about to slash regulations for poultry plants. Instead of trained USDA inspectors, companies will police themselves. Meanwhile, plants will be allowed to speed up production dramatically. Chickens will spend more time soaking in contaminants (including pus and feces), and poultry plants are compensating by washing them in with chlorine.

Ron Nixon of the New York Times notes that “many of the agency’s inspectors said the proposal puts consumers at risk for diseases like those caused by salmonella. In affidavits given to the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit legal-assistance group for government whistle-blowers, several inspectors who work at plants where the pilot program is in place said the main problem is that they are removed from positions on the assembly line and put at the end of the line, which makes it impossible for them to spot diseased birds.”

“The inspectors, whose names were redacted, said they had observed numerous instances of poultry plant employees allowing birds contaminated with fecal matter or other substances to pass. And even when the employees try to remove diseased birds, they face reprimands, the inspectors said. The Agriculture Department proposal allows poultry plants to speed up their assembly lines to about 200 birds per minute from 140, hampering any effort to examine birds for defects. ‘It’s tough enough when you are trying to examine 140 birds per minute with professional inspectors,’ said Stan Painter, a federal inspector in Alabama. ‘This proposal makes it impossible.’” The USDA estimates that the poultry industry stands to make more than $250 million a year from the new rules.

Of all the problems that Upton Sinclair battled in his ninety years of life, meat and poultry inspection would not be the one he would expect to persist into the twenty-first century. Alcoholism? He would be unsurprised that alcohol continues to wreak havoc in families and on roads. Corruption of the press? In 1920, he wrote The Brass Check, still considered the classic exploration of what goes wrong with journalism. Labor? Governor Scott Walker would not shock Sinclair because he had faced down the Merchants Marine Association in San Pedro in 1924 and gone to jail to defend free speech there. The domination of the oil industry? In 1926, Upton Sinclair and his wife owned some land that was leased by oil drillers at Signal Hill. He took notes at all the meetings and produced a great novel of California history, Oil!

The only person who can stop the new regulations is President Obama. Like Theodore Roosevelt, he holds the fate of the nation’s food in his pen. Here is a petition you can sign to demand regulation for the poultry industry, Upton Sinclair, if he were here, would be urging us to do at least that.

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