Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Washington Jungle Revisited

This year marks the 100th anniversary of passage of the first food safety law in America. It was enacted just one year after 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 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."

The Washington Post's 2001 series of articles about slaughterhouses showed steers dismembered while conscious. Other investigations, often by PETA staffers who have swallowed hard, steeled themselves and "gone in," have documented similar violations of law. In her exposé of the slaughter industry, investigative journalist Gail Eisnitz described routine abuse of all farmed animal species in slaughterhouses. 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. Foodborne illness has quadrupled in the last 15 years. There are 75 million cases of food poisoning in the United States annually, and 5,000 of them are fatal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 70 percent of food poisoning 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."

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."

One of the Bush administration's first gifts to the meat industry, which donated more than $600,000 to his 2000 campaign, was a move to end the testing of meat for deadly salmonella bacteria before it is sold to school lunch programs.

So in 2007, just as in 1906, neither farmed animals nor consumers (nor, for that matter slaughterhouse employees who today, as then, are largely made up of immigrants) are protected from the avarice of the meat and slaughter industries. This, too, is still true: 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. Personal responsibility for what, or who, we eat and feed our children can, however, make a world of difference.

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