Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906 and since that time it's become a classic example of muckraking (journalism that exposes corruption). It also is possibly the first book to address industrial agriculture - and what happens when Big Food interests run amok.

I wanted to read The Jungle because it's a classic piece of the American literary canon, and also because I was interested in early food journalism. I didn't realize that it also qualified as creative non-fiction, being centered around a fictional Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus who moves with his family to Chicago, following the promise of a better life. There, he gets a job in "Packingtown" at one of the meatpacking houses. And basically? It all goes to hell from there.

The horrid conditions (and I mean horrid) that Sinclair describes through Jurgis and his family caused public outcry. Sinclair himself worked undercover in the meatpacking plants for weeks, doing research. The book was originally published as a serial in a socialist newspaper (Sinclair was an active socialist), and he eventually paid to publish the first edition of the book on his own. Ironically, his goal was to further his political agenda - to expose the plight of the working man. But what the public cared about was the impact the book had on how they saw their food.

Though the government denounced his book because of his socialist agenda, President (Teddy) Roosevelt commissioned a report that confirmed Sinclair's claims. Public outcry eventually led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act (required mandatory inspections of livestock, postmortem inspections of carcasses, sanitary conditions in slaughterhouses and housing plants, and USDA monitoring of facilities) as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established what would later be called the FDA, and carried penalties for mislabeling and adulteration of products, which at the time was rampant - and frankly, foul.

For all of the issues that I have with modern industrial agriculture and confined animal feeding operations, this book put into perspective how much worse it actually was 100 years ago. While there are still additives in processed food that I don't want to eat, it is because of modern food production that we can buy milk that isn't 50% chalk, and if we buy a carton of rancid yogurt at the store, we can return it for a full refund. While people still do die of food poisoning, and I'm not making light of that, the mortality rate from adulterated food is drastically lower today than it was 100 years ago, thanks in part to the legislation passed after The Jungle was published. We can definitely thank Sinclair and the other muckraking journalists at the time for that.

It's worth noting that Sinclair was disappointed that people cared more about the food they were eating than the plight of the working man, but that is sadly an issue that hasn't gotten much better today. It's important that we eat pesticide free, organic produce not just because of the danger of pesticides to our own health, but because the exposure to farm workers is orders of magnitude worse.

I wonder what Sinclair would say if he could see what his book began - and how far we still have to go.

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