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Century-Old Book On The Meatpacking Industry Still Holds Lessons For Today

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Finding a new passion for something is a lot like falling in love in the beginning, you cannot get enough of it, and you wonder what you ever thought about before.

And so it was for me when I began reporting on the cattle business I was insatiable. I discovered the discount shelves at bookstores were full of information on food production. While it was a boon for me, I mourned that agriculture was an unpopular topic right alongside the discounted books on politics and history.

The books I read chronicled the loss of the family farm, corporate agriculture, the disappearance of the honeybee, GMOs, BSE, and the history of branding. I was so taken with the latter, I actually got a tattoo of my favourite one. Unfortunately, that brand doesn t even exist in Alberta, which means I have a tattoo that only makes sense in Saskatchewan.

Despite that first year of potent infatuation, it wasn t until just last week that I finally read Upton Sinclair s classic book,The Jungle.Written in 1906 after the author worked and lived in Chicago s infamous Packingtown, the book had a profound impact on the American meat-packing industry.

Sinclair used the industrial climate of Packingtown to detail the tribulations of immigrants. He wrote about how they were often swindled by predatory lenders and taken advantage of by corrupt supervisors; about how their children worked in sweatshops; and that women were abused sexually at work. Many would suffer the rest of their days striving to escape a poverty worse than they had left behind in the old country. Sinclair was hoping to demonstrate how selfishness and greed were promoting behaviours opposite to that of the American ideal.

However, when the controversial book was released, the American people paid little mind to the horror experienced by the immigrants they were concerned only with the allegations of widespread and systematic food safety failures. Poor Sinclair was devastated. While the book was well read and people were outraged, it failed to achieve the effect he desired. He is quoted as saying, I aimed at the public s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.

Still,The Jungleirrevocably changed and influenced the beef industry, not only in the U.S. but also in Canada. It included stories of rats and fecal matter being ground into sausage, spoiled meats being soaked in chemicals to remove the smell, tubercular beef exiting packer doors as though the disease were just a special spice, and of the occasional sorry worker who fell into the rendering tanks and was cremated into lard.

Teddy Roosevelt was president at the time, and although he considered Sinclair a left-wing lunatic, public outcry prompted him to send two men to investigate the situation. Packingtown was tipped off and cleaned the plants day and night for three weeks straight. Despite their efforts, the only claim that couldn t be substantiated was that men occasionally disappeared into vats to spend their afterlife as lard.

Public pressure resulted in the formation of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1930 (out of which today s Food and Drug Administration was born). Interestingly, Sinclair didn t endorse the legislation because American taxpayers, not the packers, would bear the substantive inspection fees under the act. In Canada, packers pay for inspection, and this difference has long been cause for complaint.

There s no doubt this book was in part written as socialist propaganda. Near the end, there s a rant nearly as academic as John Galt s in Ayn Rand sAtlas Shrugged.However, Sinclair tells the immigrants story beautifully, and it s fascinating to see how the packing industry has evolved over the years.

The book pits capitalism against socialism, and is written with the absolute black-and-white view that only rabid political partisanship can create. Sinclair saw the book as a story about immigrants and the lack of compassion and resources for the lower class. America saw the book as a lesson in food safety. I see it as a harbinger of the danger posed when an apathetic public and a complicit media beget a government wooed and ultimately corrupted by concentrated power and wealth in the private sector& sort of similar to what we ve seen happen to America in the last decade.

Years afterThe Junglewas published, a report revealed widespread collusion between the big five packers, resulting in the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. Near the end of the book, Sinclair s characters imagine a much more equitable world 100 years in the future precisely the time the housing bubble was poised to pop in the U.S., after deregulation allowed the too big to fail banks to destabilize the global economy.

After reading the book s very last page, I remembered the vast selection of history and political books on the discount shelves, and I realizedThe Junglewould never, ever truly be history.

———

Iaimedatthepublic sheart,andbyaccidentIhititinthestomach.

UPTON SINCLAIR

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