If you live in the US and you’ve been into a grocery store in the last few weeks, you’ve noticed something. Meat is getting harder to find, and more expensive. The supply chain is thoroughly disrupted, for a lot of complicated reasons this post isn’t about. No, this is about one thing: why aren’t there local processing plants we can use to get our meat at? Why are we reliant, as a nation, on a few huge, vulnerable points in our food supply? Peter Grant was discussing this question on his blog, in more depth, but he mentioned something and that got me started…
Upton Sinclair, that’s why. Upton Sinclair, who wrote a novel he thought would unleash socialism on the nation, and was surprised to get industry regulation instead. You see, The Jungle was entirely fictional. There never was that sort of malfeasance surrounding the food supply that he wrote about. He was trying to sensationalize the meat industry, and he succeeded. What he put into the book as pathos was taken as truth, when in reality he was relying on a drunk telling stories in a bar for much of his material around the stockyard, and the rest of it he swallowed piecemeal from other activists who wanted to see change happen and didn’t care how they achieved their goals. Sounds like PETA doesn’t it? It should, because it’s based in the same thing. Lies. Upton Sinclair created an urban legend, and the nation swallowed it as reality.
His highly sensational account of the meat industry was almost entirely fabricated, yet it changed the face of American meat production. I highly recommend that you read The Problem with Classroom Use of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle by Louise Carroll Wade. She goes deeply into his background and motivations, but the article opens with a thorough discussion of the faults of Sinclair’s portrayals of the stockyards and slaughterhouses.
…scholars have ignored Sinclair’s skeptical contemporaries. The first group of governmental investigators, for example, thought packinghouses in the novel bore little resemblance to reality.
And the better known Neill-Reynolds report, which Roosevelt used to secure congressional action, actually commended the chilled meat division of the industry. Its authors, moreover, repudiated Sinclair during public hearings in June 1906. The President told William Allen White that although Sinclair was of “service to us,” he was “untruthful” and “three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods.” Journalist Mark Sullivan warned readers of Our Times to avoid “the error, practically universal, of classifying Sinclair and his ‘Jungle’ with the ‘Muckrackers.'” They are “utterly different… in their methods.” The best of the muckrakers “confirmed everything,” while Sinclair was a “propagandist” whose account of “conditions in the stockyards did not purport to have any more than the loose standard of accuracy that fiction demands for local color and background.” Even that was rejected by Ralph Chaplin, a socialist who grew up in the vicinity of the yards and packinghouses and was living there when the novel appeared. In his autobiography Wobbly, Chaplin said of The Jungle, “I thought it a very inaccurate picture of the stockyards district which I knew so well.”
“President Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Sinclair in a letter to William Allen White in July 1906, “I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.”
…an authoritative 1906 report of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry. Its investigators provided a point-by-point refutation of the worst of Sinclair’s allegations, some of which they labeled as “willful and deliberate misrepresentations of fact,” “atrocious exaggeration,” and “not at all characteristic.”
As popular myth would have it, there were no government inspectors before Congress acted in response to The Jungle and the meat packers fought federal inspection all the way. The truth is that not only did government inspection exist, but meat packers themselves supported it and were in the forefront of the effort to extend it! Knowing that a new law would allay public fears fanned by The Jungle, bring smaller competitors under regulation, and put a newly-laundered government stamp of approval on their products, the major meat packers strongly endorsed the proposed act and only quibbled over who should pay for it.
In the end, Americans got a new federal meat inspection law. The big packers got the taxpayers to pick up the entire $3 million price tag for its implementation as well as new regulations on their smaller competitors, and another myth entered the annals of anti-market dogma.