In 1905, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a groundbreaking novel that highlighted two main problems in America at the time; the poor treatment of Lithuanian immigrants and the horrific conditions of the meat packing industry. He created what, to this day, is considered a muckraker’s dream story. Even still, it was not well received during his time. Today, it remains a pivotal work in journalism and literature in general. One hundred and eight years later, The Jungle is still apropos and well worth a reread by those whose last look at the novel was during high school.
Sinclair knew something was amiss with Lithuanian immigrants in the meat packing industry. He was somewhat aware of the their ill-treatment, but when he decided to go undercover to work in the business, he would discover that the poor treatment of immigrants was not the only problem. The Jungle would be the work that expressed, in no uncertain terms, what is done to the meat entrusted to businesses that control what is distributed to public supermarkets.
It is now over 100 years later, and the same kind of unimaginable conditions persist in the meat industry, now termed, the “beef” industry. In films like “Genetic Roulette” and “Food, Inc.” you get an inside view of what has NOT changed about how meat is handled. Cows, pigs and chickens are not only fed things they normally wouldn’t eat in nature, which disrupts their digestive system, causing them to become severely ill, but all of these animals are being given drugs and various types of hormones that ultimately changes how their body naturally adapts to their environment. Antibiotics are given to stop infections caused by poor conditions that begin from the breeding house all the way to the slaughter house. Animal abuse is rampant, with no care at all as to the pain the animals go through from their birth to their death.
In The Jungle, we see the same lack of care for the animals, and the meat produced after the animal is slaughtered. One would think that after the animal is now dead and put out of its misery, there would at least be some care for how the meat from the slaughtered creature is handled before being fed to the public. Yet, The Jungle clearly shows that profit is far more important than health and safety. In The Jungle, we see that nothing is off limits. If there is a rat problem and a rat falls into the meat being ground, they kept grinding. If a human limb is accidentally cut off and it falls into the grinder, they kept grinding. As long as no one knew except those in the building, the wheel of industry was to never stop.
Lithuanian immigrants, as well as other immigrants, were in a precarious position, knowing their ability to remain in the United States depended on their cooperation. The majority were afraid to say anything, lest they be shipped home. Or worse, left to die in some unknown street, lost in the America of the early 1900s, a time in history when welfare was not available to cushion the blow of abject poverty.
Today, one doesn’t need to be an immigrant to feel the tension that comes with working in the beef industry. Take a gander at “Genetic Roulette” and “Food, Inc.” They are two powerful documentaries that tell it like it is and show you footage on what is being done to your meat, how you get it and under what conditions.
If you want something that will give you a history lesson on this country’s bad track record where meat is concerned, then grab a copy of The Jungle. If those two films don’t curl your toes, then The Jungle surely will. In the end, we are still living in The Jungle, or should I write, in the jungle, the real life jungle of modern day America’s meat packing industry.