Lettuce, E. Coli, and Deregulation

Cartoon from when we had a president interested in protecting the public

Wednesday

A little over two years ago I posted on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in response to Donald Trump’s promise (threat) to roll back FDA regulations. It’s a promise he kept and–what do you know?–we had another romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak just before Thanksgiving. Forty people across 12 states were sickened by lettuce traced back to central and northern California.

When it comes to socially irresponsible businesses, Sinclair’s muckraking classic never gets old. “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach,”the author said after the Pure Food and Drugs Act passed in 1906.

You may recall the previous 2011 outbreak, when contaminated lettuce sickened 200 and killed five. Congress and the FDA did what they’re supposed to do in such cases, drawing up stricter regulations. Then along came the Trumpist GOP.

GQ and Wired tell the story:

Fruits and vegetables carry E. coli if they’re exposed to contaminated water, and salad greens, typically eaten raw, are especially prone to spreading it. Water can get contaminated by livestock or wildlife waste, and that fecal runoff can easily make its way into farming irrigation. So, Congress passed legislation requiring farmers to test irrigation water for pathogens. The legislation would have gone into effect earlier this year based on criteria drawn up by the Obama-era Food and Drug Administration. As Wired reports:

But six months before people were sickened by the contaminated romaine, President Donald Trump’s FDA – responding to pressure from the farm industry and Trump’s order to eliminate regulations – shelved the water-testing rules for at least four years.

Here’s my previous post from when Trump was still on the campaign trail.

Reprinted from Sept. 16, 2016

One of Donald Trump’s favorite targets is “overregulation,” and yesterday he went after food inspections and “the FDA food police.” This gives me the opportunity to talk a novel that very tangibly made our lives better. After Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) described what was happening in the meat packing industry, Congress went to work and required rigorous health inspections.

Now Trump wants to turn the clock back. As the Hill reported yesterday,

Donald Trump floated rolling back food safety regulations if he wins the White House in November.

In a fact sheet posted online Thursday, the campaign highlighted a number of “specific regulations to be eliminated” under the GOP nominee’s economic plan, including what they called the “FDA Food Police.”

The FDA Food Police, which dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables and even dictates the nutritional content of dog food,” it read.

“The rules govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures and even what animals may roam which fields and when,” the statement continued. “It also greatly increased inspections of food ‘facilities,’ and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill.”

“Inspection overkill” was not the problem in 1906. Although Sinclair wanted to alert people to the plight of U.S. workers, he observed that his book created a sensation “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.” Passages such as the following stirred public outrage:

With one member trimming beef in a cannery, and another working in a sausage factory, the family had a first-hand knowledge of the great majority of Packingtown swindles. For it was the custom, as they found, whenever meat was so spoiled that it could not be used for anything else, either to can it or else to chop it up into sausage. With what had been told them by Jonas, who had worked in the pickle rooms, they could now study the whole of the spoiled-meat industry on the inside, and read a new and grim meaning into that old Packingtown jest—that they use everything of the pig except the squeal.

Jonas had told them how the meat that was taken out of pickle would often be found sour, and how they would rub it up with soda to take away the smell, and sell it to be eaten on free-lunch counters; also of all the miracles of chemistry which they performed, giving to any sort of meat, fresh or salted, whole or chopped, any color and any flavor and any odor they chose. In the pickling of hams they had an ingenious apparatus, by which they saved time and increased the capacity of the plant—a machine consisting of a hollow needle attached to a pump; by plunging this needle into the meat and working with his foot, a man could fill a ham with pickle in a few seconds. And yet, in spite of this, there would be hams found spoiled, some of them with an odor so bad that a man could hardly bear to be in the room with them. To pump into these the packers had a second and much stronger pickle which destroyed the odor—a process known to the workers as “giving them thirty per cent.” Also, after the hams had been smoked, there would be found some that had gone to the bad. Formerly these had been sold as “Number Three Grade,” but later on some ingenious person had hit upon a new device, and now they would extract the bone, about which the bad part generally lay, and insert in the hole a white-hot iron. After this invention there was no longer Number One, Two, and Three Grade—there was only Number One Grade. The packers were always originating such schemes—they had what they called “boneless hams,” which were all the odds and ends of pork stuffed into casings; and “California hams,” which were the shoulders, with big knuckle joints, and nearly all the meat cut out; and fancy “skinned hams,” which were made of the oldest hogs, whose skins were so heavy and coarse that no one would buy them—that is, until they had been cooked and chopped fine and labeled “head cheese!”

It was only when the whole ham was spoiled that it came into the department of Elzbieta. Cut up by the two-thousand-revolutions-a-minute flyers, and mixed with half a ton of other meat, no odor that ever was in a ham could make any difference. There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white—it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast. Some of it they would make into “smoked” sausage—but as the smoking took time, and was therefore expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department, and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatine to make it brown. All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it they would stamp some of it “special,” and for this they would charge two cents more a pound.

Be wary of those want to take America back to the “good old days.” We may not like what we’d be taken back to

This entry was posted in Sinclair (Upton) and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

  • AVAILABLE NOW!

  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!