The Jungle might very well be the most influential novel you probably don’t know. Written by Upton Sinclair in 1906, the novel was intended to show the horrible conditions in America’s slums. Instead, Sinclair exposed the unsanitary conditions in meatpacking plants.
The novel first appeared as a serial (a common occurrence in the 19th century) in a socialist newspaper before being published.
Publishing houses rejected the work, deeming it too shocking for audiences, so Sinclair paid to have the first edition published. After that, Doubleday picked up the novel, and it has never gone out of print.
Chicago was King of the Slaughter House
Meatpacking plants became a necessity as the population grew and became increasingly urban. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago was the home to the United States’ meatpacking industry.
Cows were slaughtered year round while hogs were killed during the winter. Pig fat from the slaughter was used to make lard.
Any part of the animal that wasn’t used, like blood and entrails, was flushed into the water supply.
The stockyards just outside Chicago received, housed and slaughtered 12 million animals in 1890.
By 1900, meatpacking plants were big business. Mechanized and refrigerated rooms and railroad cars meant meat could be kept fresher longer. Unused animal parts were used in other products including gelatin, glue and oleomargarine.
By World War I, Chicago was called Hog Butcher for the World. The meatpacking plants were sprawling complexes, slaughtering animals raised on feedlots.
You may recognize one of the companies that was in business when Sinclair wrote The Jungle – Armour and Co.
Conditions in Meatpacking Plants
In the early 20th century, most cooking was done from scratch. Fresh meat was purchased at a butcher’s, and customers trusted the food was fresh.
While working as a journalist, Sinclair spent seven weeks investigating Chicago’s meatpacking plants. He noted that work conditions were unsafe and unsanitary.
His exposé exposed consumers to the reality of what was on their dinner plate. They were eating sausage that contained rats, rat poison and rat droppings. Spoiled ham could not be sold as is, because it was moldy and full of maggots, and it, too, was ground up and added to the sausage. In addition, in the early 20th century, Borax often was added to meat to prevent spoilage.
Employees used the toilets in meatpacking plants and did not wash their hands before returning to work.
“There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white–it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption,” Sinclair says in The Jungle. “There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.”
The industry, of course, claimed its products were safe.
Government Steps In
Public reaction was strong. People sent letters in droves to President Theodore Roosevelt, who really had no interest, but helped nonetheless.
Roosevelt sent U.S. government representatives to inspect the plants. However, the plants were cleaned prior to the inspectors’ visits. Nevertheless, the inspectors saw enough to conclude The Jungle had been based on truth.
The government’s findings led to the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act as well as the forerunner of the Food and Drug Administration.
The Pure Food and Drug Act made it illegal to sell adulterated food and drugs, and all foods were required to have ingredient labels.
The Meat Inspection Act placed federal inspectors in all meatpacking plants that entered into interstate or international business.
In the 21st century, the number of food inspectors employed by the FDA has decreased, and food safety has become a political issue. Perhaps before long we will find ourselves again in a situation like those presented in The Jungle.
Updated: 15 October 2020