For most consumers, an initial exposure to the unseen dangers on their dinner plate came from Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle” — specifically, two chapters in which he drew from his own observations of the Chicago meat-packing industry to describe conditions in which meat was prepared.
The London Times’ 1906 literary review wrote about the novel’s real-world context: “Unhappily we have good reason for believing it to be all fact, not fiction. The action of the President … remove all doubt, and give the book very great importance … it is with nothing less than horror that we learn it to be true. The things described by Mr. Sinclair happened yesterday, are happening today, and will happen tomorrow and the next day, until some Hercules comes to cleanse the filthy stable.”
Readers’ concerns from Sinclair’s novel soon became a political issue and escalated into a full-blown “meat scandal” in President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Roosevelt not only sent his own commission to verify what Sinclair described but exchanged letters with the author to help validate the very details that frightened American consumers. From this came the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act — forever changing the role of the Department of Agriculture in terms of food safety, and the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act — which ultimately led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.
The Library of Congress still lists “The Jungle” in its collection of Books That Shaped America for having provoked thought, controversy and changes in national legislation throughout American history. Most high school students’ only exposure to food safety content comes from learning about this early example of investigative journalism. More than 100 years later, Sinclair’s work is viewed as historically impactful while still culturally relevant. Today, our food safety culture centers on the role of a “Hercules” at every stage of farm to fork.