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The Jungle, Revisited

[ 48 ] April 7, 2012 |

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. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.–Upton Sinclair, The Jungle.

The Obama Administration has approved the expansion of a pilot program that allows poultry producers to hire their own regulators. It’s hard to see what could go wrong with that. Who has a greater interest in producing safe meat than the meatpackers themselves? Oh right, everybody.

The biggest problem with the government’s regulatory regime is too much private control. As historians and food writers have shown on topics ranging from meat production to the plastics industry to hormones, in theory government regulation can do a great deal to create healthy human bodies and non-polluted environments. But industry lobbying have weakened those regulations from the beginning. The hiring of former industry workers as inspectors create cozy ties between government and industry, not to mention the powerful friends these industries have on Capitol Hill and K Street.

And when private poultry inspectors do report diseased birds, they face reprimands from their employers, who I should not need to remind you, are usually gigantic corporations seeking to profit on squeezing as many birds through regulation as possible. Hard to see a conflict of interest here!

Thus the answer to our regulatory woes is certain not privatized regulation, allowing poultry companies or anyone else to choose their own regulators. This makes a joke of the FDA and makes the bodies of consumers far less safe.

Isn’t the next step to get rid of the Food and Drug Administration entirely. After all, if the Progressive Era is the time when big government began to destroy our freedom by regulating society, as both Karl Rove and Glenn Beck have stated, than reinstating the buyer beware policies for food must be a brilliant way to make us all free. No one is forcing you to eat that e-coli infected chicken!

When you combine industry (non) self-regulation, turning animals into industrialized products, and the terrible safety and working conditions within meatpacking plants, how far are we away from the world Upton Sinclair described over 100 years ago?

Comments (48)

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  1. Anderson says:

    As “pink slime” demonstrated, one area where Americans really do like regulation is keeping the food on their table from being EW GROSS.

    Wish we could harness some of that anti-pink-slime energy into the field of meat-packing.

  2. DrDick says:

    But capitalism is a perfect self-regulating system and corporations always look out for the interests of the public!

    • c u n d gulag says:

      And the CEO’s of the foul fowl industry will say that no one in the public has complained much since they started regulating themselves.
      “So, see! No harm done!”

      Of course, people who die from e-coli don’t get to write too many letters of complaint.
      And their grieving relatives and friends have other things to do at the time.

      But then, if people do complain, the CEO’s will ask, “What good is government regulation since the people who die of e-coli don’t vote anymore either?”
      “So, draw your own conclusions,” they’ll say.”

  3. mpowell says:

    Well, we’re still quite a ways from Sinclair’s world, but I agree, this is simply terrible. I wonder what the conservative idiots who are pushing for this are really thinking. There used to be a time when the super wealthy probably didn’t eat any of the food coming through the industrial processing machine, but I doubt there is really anybody alive today in the US for whom that is true. Even the chicken at a premium restaurant probably came through that system.

  4. Steve LaBonne says:

    Another day, another Obama WTF moment.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      Wrong response.

      There’s been a bipartisan rollback of actual government regulation that goes back to the Carter Administration.

      The Obama Administration certainly deserves criticism for this. But it’s hardly surprising. Just another day in the long march of neoliberalism.

      And the core problem is not Obama, but rather the bipartisan love of “market-based solutions” and deprecation of actual, state-run regulation of the economy in the public interest.

  5. mingo says:

    This seriously pisses me off, not the least because I KNOW he knows better. My only hope* is that after the pilot has run its course, the result is, “oh, hello! We, in the spirit of bipartisany goodness, gave this the old college try, and guess what! It really does not work!”.

    *sigh

    • Left_Wing_Fox says:

      Yeah, I stopped hoping for that outcome a little over a year ago.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      What makes you think that Obama “knows better”?

      I mean that question entirely seriously. The President, like most mainstream Democrats, has a strong, baseline preference for “markets” private-sector “solutions.”

      This decision seems to reflect deeply held ideological commitments, not the desperate and fruitless search for bipartisanship.

      • mingo says:

        My reason for saying that is he is obviously very intelligent and well-educated, and thus I think that he has to have read ‘The Jungle’ at one time, and is aware of the inherent problems of corporate self-policing. Not so much that he cares about it, but is at least knowledgeable.

        • Anonymous says:

          very intelligent and well-educated

          thus I think that he has to have read ‘The Jungle’ at one time

          aware of the inherent problems of corporate self-policing

          The second and third items don’t necessarily follow from the first. And even if the President, the Secretary of Agriculture, the USDA, etc. are all intelligent, well-educated, have read “The Jungle” and are aware of the problems of corporate self-policing this doesn’t stop them from rationalizing away the problems with this policy. It might even make it easier! (People in 1906 were ignorant, the labor quality wasn’t there, the technology wasn’t there, etc.)

        • wengler says:

          Your first mistake was thinking that policy is made by a rational decision-making process. This might have been an important program for some member of Congress, and expanding it may have gotten a promise to help Obama on something the president considers more important.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Exactly. Obama is better in regulatory issues than Republican presidents, but that doesn’t mean he’s good. Cass Sunstein of the kinder, gentler wing of the Chicago school didn’t end up in his administration by accident.

  6. c u n d gulag says:

    Oh, and read “Fast Food Nation,” also.
    There’s a lot of nasty stuff in there about Big Agra/Meat.

  7. mingo says:

    Second on Fast Food Nation. Good (scary) stuff.

  8. David Kaib says:

    The idea that government’s role is to facilitate markets (and punish those who challenge markets) is deeply entrenched in the basic view of governance of both parties. There are important differences but they operate within this consensus.

    That’s why moments like this are maddening. Like the Upper Branch incident, this pink slime moment is perfect for making the case for regulation. Democrats will never get to the right of Republicans here, and people actually approve of many health, safety, labor, and consumer regulations. Instead, the best we can hope for is no change, and often we are moving backwards. But it should come as no surprise as this is standard neoliberal fare.

    The political context is not infinitely malleable but there are real consequences to the Dems decades of adoption of market thinking that make it harder to enact progressive reform.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      Exactly.

      Anyone who sees this move as surprising, or as merely foolish, tactical “bipartisanship,” doesn’t understand the governing ideology of today’s Democratic Party.

  9. jeer9 says:

    Clearly, Sotomayor and Kagan compensate for these types of decisions so stop your griping. You can’t expect to agree with everything (70%? 50%? 30%?) of a lesser evil.

    • mark f says:

      Good point. A Supreme Court consisting of Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, Ginsburg, Breyer and two McCain appointees would be sure to approve President Michael Moore’s regulatory scheme.

      • Holden Pattern says:

        Look over there! Crazy Republicans! They’re KKKRRRRAAAAZZZZYYY!!!!

        So don’t criticize the Dems.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          So don’t criticize the Dems.

          I’m glad that you’re so valiantly rebutting the zero people here who have ever made that argument.

          • Holden Pattern says:

            Please provide a list of areas in which one can criticize the Democratic leadership in this venue FROM THE LEFT without receiving the inevitable rebuttal of “But the Republicans would be worse/crazier” from one or more regular commenters.

            I haven’t seen one topic yet.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              You can criticize Democrats from the left all you want without triggering that reaction, as this thread shows. What triggered the reaction in this case, as it usually does, is jeer9 making for the umpteenth time his lazy, incoherent argument that if Democratic president does bad thing x there’s no real difference between Democrats and Republicans. Which, of course, inevitably causes other people to point out that this is stupid. See the difference?

              • jeer9 says:

                Holden,
                Lazy and incoherent are terms better used to describe many of this adminstration’s policies, as you well know. Running interference for such ineptitude as the host regularly does is stupid.
                See the difference?

            • mpowell says:

              This post itself criticizes the Dems from the left. What in the hell are you smoking?

            • mark f says:

              The Obama administration acquiescing to the meatpacking industry’s self-regulation scheme.

      • jeer9 says:

        Undermining the maintainance of basic FDA enforcement is, voila, transformed into an attempt to approve President Michael Moore’s regulatory scheme. Now that’s a good point.

        It is, however, no small comfort to know that if a lawsuit which sought to overturn this policy reached the SC, despite the administration’s lawyers arguing in favor of the effectiveness of an industry’s self-policing, S & K would vote for the losing liberal side.

        I’m sure McCain would have protected the banksters even better than the current DoJ. Then again, is that even possible?

        • mark f says:

          Undermining the maintainance of basic FDA enforcement is, voila, transformed into an attempt to approve President Michael Moore’s regulatory scheme. Now that’s a good point.

          Umm . . . no.

          The “punish the Dems until they become left wing” strategy inevitably requires losing elections. That’s why John McCain replaces Stevens and Souter in my comment. But if it somehow worked and at a later date we wound up with a genuinely leftist president, a SCOTUS packed with 7+ Republican appointees would doom the agenda (not to mention the impact on lower courts). And if you don’t think the courts would have time to address these things, please consider how quickly they got to ACA.

          • chris says:

            The “punish the Dems until they become left wing” strategy inevitably requires losing elections.

            And yet, the very policy you’re complaining about comes after the Dems lost an election because their base sat it out. How much more liberal did that make them, exactly?

            Continuing the floggings until morale improves doesn’t work.

            On the other hand, if the Republicans actually could be destroyed as a real threat, then the liberal wing of the DP could tell people like Nelson and Lieberman to get lost. (Actually, they already did tell Lieberman to get lost, but it didn’t stick.) At that point it *wouldn’t even matter* which camp Obama turned out to be in, because Congress holds all the cards in domestic policymaking anyway.

  10. [...] on Apr 7, 2012, 10:45 amThe Obama Administration has approved the expansion of a pilot program that allows poultry producers to hire their own regulators.Because really, only a whiny alarmist would see a conflict between an inspector doing his job and [...]

  11. bradp says:

    Meat packing regulations were pushed for by the major meat packers in response to very public concerns about American beef in Europe. European governments at the behest of local meat packers pushed for more and more onerous requirements in what was a bit of a spiraling trade war.

    There has never been resistance against meat packing regulation, just an strong and surprisingly successful attempt to squash competition and get the public to foot the bill for high quality.

    • DrDick says:

      Except that the Jungle was written over a decade after those original regulations. Pretty much all regulation of industry has been imposed by the government to address massive widespread abuses (which are a natural and inevitable part of capitalism). On meat packing regulations from Wikipedia:

      History of U.S. Federal Meat Inspection/Regulation

      The first instance of federal regulation of the meat industry occurred in 1890, when European markets began questioning the quality of American beef. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was given the power to make sure European standards were met, and in 1891 could inspect slaughtered livestock to be sold in the United States.[27] The momentum for the creation of meat regulation laws in the 20th century was spurred by the publication of The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. Published in 1906, this exposé described the horrible and unsanitary conditions of the Chicago slaughterhouses and caused a public outcry for change.[28] The Federal government authorized the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) in 1906 as a response. It “established sanitary standards for slaughter” and “mandated antemortem inspection of animals…and postmortem inspection of every carcass.”[29] Another stipulation was that government inspectors must be in every meat production facility.[30] This law did not originally cover poultry, just beef and meat from other mammals, because poultry was not being mass-produced in the early 20th century.[31] The federal meat inspection programs continued to be revised throughout the 20th century, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, in light of studies that showed more dangers not yet addressed.[32]

      • BradP says:

        Except that the Jungle was written over a decade after those original regulations.

        Precisely my point. All of these were ineffective because it was cheaper to bribe inspectors than it was to fix quality and safety issues. The meat packing industry were desperate to prove the quality of their meat, and used the public to provide false certification.

        In 1906 the game changed quite a bit as The Jungle sparked public outrage. Meat packers used that outrage to finally stop the shortcuts by getting the state to use public funds to absorb the costs of quality meat.

        Sinclair, who was famously disappointed that he hit the public in the stomach and not the heart, was adamantly opposed to the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 that his work had inspired.

        He said:

        “the Federal
        inspection of meat was, historically, established at the packers’ request;
        … it is maintained and paid for by the People of the United States for the
        benefit of the packers; … men wearing the blue uniforms and brass buttons
        of the United States service are employed for the purpose of certifying to
        the nations of the civilized world that all the diseased and tainted meat
        which happens to come into existence in the United States of America is carefully sifted out and consumed by the American people.”

  12. The Reality-Based Dave says:

    For most people that get food poisioning, you only get sick for a few days, then you’re back to normal.
    WRONG
    A recent article from Scientific American shows there are many different types of long lasting harm caused by mild food poisioning.

  13. [...] The Jungle, Revisited: Erik Loomis This entry was posted in Potpourri. Bookmark the permalink. ← Reader Feeder Bits for (Fri. 6-Apr-12 1731) [...]

  14. Joe says:

    I hear crickets from joe from Lowell’s comment.

    “Mr. Almanza, a former inspector himself, said he felt comfortable giving inspection duties to plant employees.” [http://www.fsis.usda.gov/about/administrator/index.asp]

    It is unclear, especially with the added money from the regulations JFL noted, where the money will come from for the alternative many here support, very well rightly in an ideal situation. My senator, who I’d note some around here didn’t much support when appointed, is speaking out against the move. She is a Democrat.

    The NYT article cited by the article linked by the OP notes:

    “Under the planned expansion, the agency would hand over these duties to poultry plant employees, while the inspectors would spend more time evaluating the plant’s bacteria-testing and other safety programs.”

    Maybe this is why, contra the OP, we don’t want to just dismiss the FDA as a whole. Sounds like a matter of using limited funds in the best way possible. Should more funds be added? Sure. I’m sure the Republicans in the House and those with filibuster power in the Senate will agree.

  15. cpinva says:

    adam smith was on this in 1776. though it pained him to admit it, he recognized that industry, left to its own devices, would simply do that which it perceived in its own economic self-interests. safety, of both the product and the workers, wasn’t a revenue generator, so both were low on the priority list, if they were on the list at all. as a result, dr. smith recognized the need for outside regulation, the crown forcing companies to meet some minimum standards, to keep them from killing off both their customers and employees.

    as well, the crown established standards for weights & measures, in a minimal effort to keep shopkeepers from flagrantly cheating their customers. unlike today, where the penalties for violating these regulations are (relatively) minor fines, back then you could literally lose your head, or at least have your neck stretched. the same could result from financial fraud and counterfeiting (prof. I. Newton got his first execution, for capturing the country’s most renowned counterfeiter).

    while i abhor capital punishment, there are times i think the occasional, public example should be made, of a wall streeter or industry executive (preferably, a CEO or CoB), in some small effort to keep the rest of them relatively honest.

    just a thought.

  16. [...] The biggest problem with the government’s regulatory regime is too much private control. As historians and food writers have shown on topics ranging from meat production to the plastics industry to hormones, in theory government regulation can do a great deal to create healthy human bodies and non-polluted environments. But industry lobbying have weakened those regulations from the beginning. The Jungle, Revisited – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money [...]

  17. tony clifton says:

    simple solution,don’t like it,don’t buy it.raging carnivores.

  18. [...] bonhomie of corporate America" has a very, very steep road to convince me.) #ddtbEmbedded Link The Jungle, Revisited – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift [...]

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