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E-text of "The Jungle"

Today's Food Safety and Inspection Service



The Big Stomachache of 1906

Shouldn't this plaque say something about the unsanitary conditions of the stockyards?

What's in a sausage? Meat, of course. And some fat, some spices and maybe a few other bits and pieces. Sausages are eaten by millions of people everyday and come in all shapes and sizes - smoked, Polish, Bratwurst - you name it. They are part of our culinary culture. After all, what's a state fair without corn-dogs? What's breakfast without sausages? What's a baseball game without hot-dogs?

Now imagine reading the following account about our beloved American food:

"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 glycerin, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. 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…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 meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one - there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.


For a few days, I hung out, listened to great music and made new friends…

Some of it [the packers] would make into "smoked" sausage - but as the smoking took time, and was therefore expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department, and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatin to make it brown. All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it they would stamp some of it "special," and for this they would charge two cents more a pound."

Feeling sick? Ready to throw up? Join the club. When Upton Sinclair's book "The Jungle" was published in 1906, it caused a wave of nausea that swept through the country. His detailed descriptions of the Chicago meatpacking industry created an uproar rarely seen before or since. President Roosevelt reportedly threw his breakfast sausages out his window and invited Sinclair to visit the White House. "The Jungle" was read by millions of people and translated into 17 languages. It cut American meat sales overnight and led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Beef Inspection Act.

Becky poses at the entrance to the stockyards

No kidding. Imagine finding out that the food you eat is laced with chemicals, rat droppings, poison, and dirt. And it's not just sausages, either. Sinclair also wrote about the diseased cows that were killed and sold to the public: "It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them, [the boils] would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face." Yeeech! How gross!!!

But all this really happened. The meatpacking industry in Chicago, concerned only with profits, ignored any and all health-safety standards that existed. They were aided by a corrupt city council whose members were only interested in lining their own pockets. The meatpackers' lobby, then, was able to buy all the politicians and continue selling spoiled rotten meat across the country without a twinge of guilt.

In order to write "The Jungle," Sinclair spent seven weeks infiltrating the Chicago stockyards (the place where the animals were slaughtered and the meat processed). He then tried to sell his manuscript to publishers, all of whom rejected it because they were afraid to offend the powerful Meat Barons. Finally, one publisher agreed, but only after sending an editor to Chicago to double-check Sinclair's findings. In horror, the editor reported, "I was able to see with my own eyes much that Sinclair had never even heard about."

Daph and Tom check out a temperature-controlled truck

One of the reasons "The Jungle" was so powerful is that it exposed the evils of the meat industry through the eyes of Jurgis Rudkus, a poor immigrant from Lithuania. Jurgis arrived in Chicago looking for a better life - for the American Dream - for him and his family. He hoped to get a decent-paying job, buy a house and get an education. Instead, he ended up working 12-14 hours a day in the stockyards for almost nothing, risking his life and suffering innumerable illnesses on account of the unsafe working conditions. After he joined a union, he was blacklisted from getting other jobs and was even jailed a few times. He found himself living in a society that didn't give two cents about him or his family, and could care less whether they lived or died. His story is heartbreaking, and I found myself gasping with anger and bewilderment throughout the book. "It's not fair," I told people. "Jurgis didn't deserve all this crap!"

Tom of Chicago Steaks unloads meat

So, armed with a great deal of indignation and curiosity, Becky and I set off to explore Chicago's modern-day meatpacking industry. We had many questions: how are meats prepared? How safe are they? How are workers treated? When we arrived at the stockyards, we learned that only a few meatpacking plants remained and only one of them still slaughtered its animals. None were open to the public, but by a stroke of luck, we saw two guys hanging out in front of the Chicago Steaks/G&W Packing Company, and after talking to them for a few minutes, we were invited inside - hurrah!

What a difference 100 years makes! The safety measures the company follows are impressive. For instance, every piece of meat that comes in has a lot number and a coded date, which means it can be tracked down to wherever it is sold. In addition, a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Inspector checks the plant every morning for cleanliness, safety and general conditions. The meats arrive in temperature-controlled trucks and if the truck does not meet general requirements, the meat is sent back. Workers wear protective clothing, hairnets and rubber gloves.

The all-important USDA seal of approval

One of these workers is Michael Johnson, head of the grinding department. As a meat grinder, Michael makes hamburgers and meat patties for eight to ten hours a day. He's been with Chicago Steaks for 11 years, first as part of the clean-up crew, ultimately rising through the ranks to his present position. He enjoys his job and likes the opportunity it offers him for advancement. If things go well, he'll be promoted to management soon. For now, though, he is a member of the Meatcutter's Union and gets two weeks of vacation as well as health benefits.

Check out Michael's hairnet!

It sounds like Jurgis's dream job.

The visit to Chicago Steaks made me realize how much has changed since "The Jungle." Thanks to Sinclair, the meat industry was forced to clean up its act and abide by rigorous national safety standards. He, along with other "muckrackers" (journalists and writers who exposed the widespread corruption and abuses that were so common in American business and politics) wrote about monopolies, urban corruption, child labor, slum conditions, and of course, the meat industry. At a time when the rich exploited everyone else, the muckrackers fought back on behalf of the working class!

That, perhaps, is their most important legacy. The muckrackers of the 1900s were not afraid of the powerful lobbies, corrupt police and constant threats. Thanks to them, others followed: in the 1960s, Rachel Carson exposed the dangers of pesticides and in the 1970s, Ralph Nader condemned the auto industry's unsafe practices. Nowadays, we hear about companies that employ sweatshop workers, exploit child labor and destroy the environment. The muckrackers of today continue to do their part - it is now up to us to ensure that these practices, just like the poisoned sausages, will become a thing of the past.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

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Making A Difference - America's corporate battlefield claims another victim: the car consumer
Stephen - When Americans could live together in solidarity
Stephanie - Triangle Shirt Factory #9 going up in flames!
Rebecca - One heroic woman that no one will honor