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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, spices and maybe 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 finding out that the food you eat is laced with chemicals, rat droppings, poison, and dirt. That's just what happened when Upton Sinclair's book "The Jungle" was published in 1906. Sinclair wrote that, "These rats [in the meat plants] 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." His descriptions of the Chicago meatpacking industry 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

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!!! In order to write "The Jungle," Sinclair spent seven weeks exploring the Chicago stockyards (the place where the animals were slaughtered and the meat processed).


After spending the last two months freezing in the Midwest, I decided I needed a break.

All of 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 making money. 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.

Daph and Tom check out a temperature-controlled truck

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!

Tom of Chicago Steaks unloads meat

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. 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. That means no more rat parts in your hot dogs!


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Triangle Shirt Factory #9 going up in flames!
Stephen - All that and more. Say hello to Trekker Stephen!
Jennifer - A suitcase full of travels! It's Trekker Jennifer
Rebecca - One heroic woman that no one will honor