The story of workers, increasingly comprised of immigrant laborers, paid low wages toiling long hours in extraordinarily dangerous and often unsanitary conditions with little to no protection or recourse. The story of the American meatpacking industry, where behind the walls of packaging plants the realities of slaughtering and processing animals into meat is anything but appetizing. I could easily be describing a news story or any number of books and documentaries chronicling the current state of American food, in particular meat, but this story is from the book The Jungle which is now 107 years old.
Upton Sinclair wrote the 1906 muckraking novel The Jungle to expose the deplorable working conditions experienced by Eastern European immigrants toiling in dangerous and unsanitary slaughterhouses in the Packingtown District of Chicago. The general public however seized upon the books descriptions of contaminated and rotten meat and consumer demand quickly led to the passage of The Federal Meat Inspection Act and The Federal Food and Drug Act, which in effect established the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).
Not so different than the one Sinclair told, the story of today’s meat industry involves working in a job with one of the highest rates of injury and illness (see, Safety and Health Guide for the Meatpacking Industry and Poultry Processing Industry eTool) , low wages (mean hourly wage of $11.99), and an increasingly immigrant workforce drawn primarily from Latin America who are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation (Artz, Jackson, & Orazem, 2010). It is the story of the cost of cheap meat involving regular outbreaks of foodborne illness, concerns over antibiotic use in livestock, abuse of animals, and pollution from factory farms. Today it is also the story of the public’s right to know how we get our meat when Ag-Gag laws limit the ability of muckrakers like Sinclair to inform the public to just what is going on behind those factory walls.
Artz, G., Jackson, R., & Orazem, P. F. (2010). Is it a jungle out there? Meat packing, immigrants, and rural communities. Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 35(2), 299-315.
Check out these other books from the library to learn more about the modern food system.