June 1, 2006
You can’t handle the truth” Jack Nicholson bellows in the movie “A Few Good Men.” His enmity bounces off the legal armor of the Tom Cruise character’s questions, however.
When “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s contentious novel hit the streets in 1906, it spoke to President Theodore Roosevelt, but as truth or as a political springboard? Sinclair – whose literary messages dealt with education, social and industrial reform – gained a presidential appointment from Roosevelt, in the same way that journalist Janet Cooke won her Pulitzer Prize. She penned a fictional account of a youthful addict that had a ring of truth.
Although Sinclair’s fingerprint is on the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act, I find no evidence that he deserved a seat at the table of those deliberations. E.C. Pasour Jr., an economist at North Carolina State University, in a May 1998 report writes that the 1906 measure was “heavily influenced by false charges.” A congressional investigation at the time found little substance in Sinclair’s allegations of the horrendous conditions he ascribed to Chicago packinghouses, Pasour submits. Indeed, other researchers have determined that Sinclair sought to shine the spotlight not on problems involving tainted meat, but rather on issues of greed, graft and worker abuse.
Pasour contends that Sinclair never pretended to have actually witnessed or verified the conditions he described in his novel. His information came from hearsay and his own imagination. Consider this passage from his novel. “It was the incarnation of blind and insensate Greed. It was a monster devouring with a thousand mouths, trampling with a thousand hoofs; it was the Great Butcher – it was the spirit of Capitalism made flesh.”
This passage is about the workers: “The new hands were here by the thousands. All day long the gates of the packinghouses were besieged by starving and penniless men; they came, literally, by the thousands every single morning, fighting with each other for a chance for life. Blizzards and cold made no difference to them, they were always on hand; they were on hand two hours before the sun rose, an hour before the work began. Sometimes their faces froze, sometimes their feet and their hands; sometimes they froze all together — but still they came, for they had no other place to go.”
What speaks to me is what led to the Meat Inspection Act of 1891 and the subsequent 1906 measure. Pasour says the 1891 action “was a solution to a largely nonexistent problem — contaminated meat. There is a great deal of evidence that the political impetus for the 1891 legislation was the consequence of rapidly changing economic conditions. The disease issue, as bogus as it apparently was, threatened both domestic demand and export markets for U.S. meat. Cattle raisers, especially those in the Midwest, backed federal meat inspection to promote demand.”
Moreover, Pasour writes, cattle producers were also concerned about falling prices as the cattle supply experienced rapid growth. “Ostensibly to deal with the largely spurious allegations of unsafe meat and collusion by the Chicago packers, cattlemen, and local packers called for federal meat inspection and antitrust legislation.”
However meat inspection happened, it is still up to the industry to do the best possible job in producing safe and wholesome products for human consumption. Here is a greater truth. The fear of civil litigations and related consequences are strong motivations behind processing and other procedures governing meat production. Unlike Sinclair, I have seen and heard what goes on in processing plants. What I hear consistently is how companies exceed federal expectations.