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Too little has changed since ‘The Jungle’

Chicago's UniStock Yards 1948.  |  Sun-Times Library

Chicago's Union Stock Yards in 1948. | Sun-Times Library

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Updated: November 27, 2013 6:04AM

‘I saw with my own eyes hams, which had spoiled in pickle, being pumped full of chemicals to destroy the odor,” wrote Upton Sinclair, of his two years working undercover in Chicago’s meatpacking plants, in a 1906 letter to President Teddy Roosevelt recently posted online by the National Archives.

As fascinating as the letter — sent less than a month after Sinclair published “The Jungle” — may be for historical purposes, what’s perhaps most shocking is that it could just as easily been written today.

“I saw waste ends of smoked beef stored in barrels in a cellar, in a condition of filth which I could not describe in a letter,” continued Sinclair. “I saw rooms in which sausage meat was stored with poisoned rats lying about, and the dung of rats covering them. I saw hogs which had died of cholera in shipment, being loaded into box cars to be taken to a place called Globe, in Indiana, to be rendered into lard.”

Sinclair’s letter — responding to an inquiry from Roosevelt — urged the president to send undercover investigators into our nation’s slaughter plants, so that they could see the corruption and abuse for themselves.

How different is this from the way today’s slaughter plants operate? One need not look further than the numerous exposes by independent whistleblowers as well as official U.S. Department of Agriculture reports to realize that past is uncomfortably prologue in this case.

Recent findings from the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, for example, concluded that government “enforcement policies do not deter swine slaughter plants from becoming repeat violators of food safety regulations.”

As reported, in one South Carolina slaughter plant, USDA issued more than 800 violations. This included 14 violations for problems such as “fecal contamination on a hog after the final trim,” almost 100 “for exposed or possibly adulterated products that had ‘grease smears’ or ‘black colored liquid substance’ on processed meat,” and 43 for “pest control problems, such as cockroaches on the kill floor.”

How many times was that South Carolina plant suspended? Zero.

In addition to food safety problems that have existed for decades, the animal cruelty and abuse Sinclair witnessed also occur at an alarming rate in slaughter plants. While Sinclair had only the power of the pen, today’s whistleblowers have an additional tool: video cameras.

As the Kansas City Star recently reported, “The meat industry has been scandalized in recent years by undercover videos showing horrific abuse of farm animals on their way to slaughter: workers kicking piglets like volleyballs, skinning veal calves alive and ramming a forklift into a sick cow.”

These abuses have been exposed time and again by animal welfare groups such as The Humane Society of the United States, even leading to meat recalls — including the largest in American history — and slaughter plant shutdowns.

Sadly, the meat industry’s response to these exposes is not to take steps to prevent the abuses from happening, but to push legislation that criminalizes undercover investigations so that Americans are kept in the dark.

The agribusiness industry’s Orwellian strategy included a bill passed in Utah last year making it a crime simply to take a photograph or video of an agricultural facility without the owner’s permission. In 2013, eleven states tried to pass similar “ag-gag” bills, although all were rejected, at least for now, after contentious debates.

With lax or inconsistent enforcement by federal regulators, we need more eyes — not fewer — on our nation’s food system. It may be promising that the USDA’s inspector general — a position that didn’t exist in Sinclair’s time — is issuing reports on the lack of enforcement of the few modest federal laws regulating animal agribusiness, but just who has the power in these plants?

The Washington Post, in a front-page report last month titled “USDA pilot program fails to stop contaminated meat,” revealed troubling details about what really goes on. “Company and government workers are yelled at, threatened and shunned if they try to slow down or stop the accelerated processing lines or complain too aggressively about inadequate safety checks,” reported the Post.

What would Sinclair make of today’s meat industry? Of the inventions in the latter half of the 20th century — such as cramming breeding pigs into two-foot-wide metal crates where they can barely move for their entire lives — that treat animals more as automatons than as living beings? The industrial factory farms that pushed family farmers off the land in the name of profit and consolidation? It’s likely he would not be impressed.

Sinclair summed up his presidential letter by quoting a fellow journalist from London’s Lancet, who reported that the conditions in large scale slaughter plants constitute a “menace to the health of the civilized world.”

A century later, little could still be truer.

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him on Twitter

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