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The Jungle, Revisited

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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?

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