by Upton Sinclair
Pocket Books, New York, 2004
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is a vivid portrait of life and death in a turn-of-the-century American meat-packing factory. A grim indictment that led to government regulations of the food industry, The Jungle is Sinclair's extraordinary contribution to literature and social reform.
The Jungle Revisited
by Peter Singer and Bruce Friedrich
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," the landmark book that exposed the horrific conditions of America’s meat-packing industry at the turn of the last century. The novel was so shocking that it prompted a government investigation and the passage of the Federal Food and Drug Act.
What is shocking today is how little conditions have changed. In 2006, just as in 1906, neither farmed animals nor consumers are protected from the meat and slaughter industries.
In 1906, Sinclair wrote: "They had chains which they fastened about the leg of the nearest hog .... [O]ne by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats. There was a long line of hogs, with squeals and lifeblood ebbing away together; until at last each started again and vanished with a splash into a huge vat of boiling water."
In her exposé of the slaughter industry, investigative journalist Gail Eisnitz described routine abuse of all farmed animal species in slaughterhouses today. She heard U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors' eyewitness testimony that completely conscious pigs are beaten over the head with lead pipes, stabbed in order to be bled out and then dunked into 140 degree water for hair removal. One slaughterhouse worker said, "There's no way these animals can bleed out in the few minutes it takes to get up the ramp. By the time they hit the scalding tank, they're still fully conscious and squealing. Happens all the time."
Sinclair's stomach-churning discussions of rotting, diseased meat that's packaged and sold to unsuspecting customers isn't just a relic of a less sanitary era. Today, contaminated meat from federally inspected slaughterhouses is routinely recalled in million-pound quantities. There are 75 million cases of food poisoning in the United States annually. Five thousand of them are fatal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 70 percent of foodborne illness is caused by contaminated animal flesh.
Laws passed to rectify these problems are as disappointing today as they were then. Sinclair lamented that the Food and Drug Act was weakened, or as he put it, "deprived of all its sharpest teeth," after the meat industry lobbied government officials and waged a media campaign to discredit "The Jungle."
Chickens, for example, are still not legally required to be stunned before slaughter in the U.S. Dr Mohan Raj, a researcher in the Department of Clinical Veterinary Science at the University of Bristol, in England, has recorded the brain activity of chickens after various forms of stunning. He reports that although chickens killed in the U.S. do receive an electric shock before having their throats cut, it is not enough to make them unconscious. Using a current sufficiently strong to produce immediate loss of consciousness would risk damage to the quality of the meat and since there is no legal requirement for stunning the industry won’t take that risk. Instead, each year more than nine billion birds - or about a million birds every hour - receive an electric shock that paralyzes them without rendering them unconscious. From the industry's point of view, that is enough, because it keeps them still, so that they can have their throats cut.
Laws have failed to protect animals because today's meat industry wields tremendous power in Washington. In the last five years alone, agribusiness funneled more than $140 million to politicians, who earned their money by ensuring that laws to protect consumers and animals didn't pass. How can the people we count on to regulate the factory farming industry be so easily influenced? Perhaps they act this way because they are often the very same people who were employed by the meat industry before being hired by the government. Just two of many examples are former Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, who served on the board of the massive agricorporation Calgene, and her chief of staff, Dale Moore, who worked for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Eric Schlosser, author of the best-selling book "Fast Food Nation," writes: "[T]he [USDA] today offers a fine example of a government agency that has been thoroughly captured and corrupted. ... As a result, ordinary Americans, both Republican and Democrat, are paying the price with their health and, sometimes, their lives."
This, too, is still true today as it was then: Each animal slaughtered is an individual. As Sinclair wrote, "Each one of these hogs was a separate creature. ... And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart's desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity."
A century seems to have made little difference.
Peter Singer is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. His "The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter," co-authored with Jim Mason, will be published by Rodale in May. Bruce Friedrich is Director of Vegan campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; MeetYourMeat.com.