In 1905, an event outside the meat processing industry forever changed its trajectory. That year marked the first publication of Upton Sinclair’s now classic novel, “The Jungle.” The work of fiction depicted the unsavory conditions of the meat packing industry in the United States. Sinclair spent seven weeks working in the packing houses of Chicago to gather experiences for the book. Those experiences gave the author the details necessary to write a book that brought change to an entire industry through legislation, specifically the passing of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.
This event and others marked monumental shifts throughout the evolution of food safety in the meat packing industry. They set successive changes in motion and pushed food safety and consumer well-being to the top of the priority list for meat processors in the United States.
President Theodore Roosevelt read “The Jungle” and sent labor commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James Bronson Reynolds to Chicago, and through their Neill-Reynolds Report, the two confirmed the details of Sinclair’s descriptions of the meat packing houses in his book. Congress then passed the legislation and President Roosevelt signed the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 into law. While “The Jungle” highlighted worker safety, it essentially created the impetus for food safety, as well.
The Meat Inspection Act of 1906 reformed the meat packing industry in the United States and set standards for sanitation and safe food for human consumption throughout the industry. It established a statute that prohibited the sale of misbranded and adulterated livestock, and the food products derived from that livestock, and ensured slaughter and processing occurred under sanitary conditions. Also, the law mandated the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspect all cattle, swine, sheep, goats and horses processed for human consumption before and after slaughter.
“As far as legislation goes, the meat act has not been opened since 1906, so we’re working off the same legislation,” said Casey Gallimore, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute (NAMI). “The only change that’s happened since then is poultry got added in with The Poultry Products Inspection Act  and then you have the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. But the actual ‘nuts and bolts’ that we work off of at the Meat Institute is the same act from 1906.”
The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act in 1958 addressed the suffering of animals during slaughter and not food safety, but The Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957 applied the principles of The Meat Inspection Act of 1906 to poultry and poultry products, requiring federal inspection and prohibiting misbranding and adulteration. Another act did pass in 1967, filling in a few other gaps in the 1906 act.
The Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 added consumer protection to the 1906 act by addressing conditions not covered in the original law. Animals slaughtered for intrastate commerce did not fall under the federal inspection regulations of the 1906 law and were the responsibility of the state. Limited state funds opened the door for abuses and inadequate food safety. The 1906 law also left out imported products and rendering.
The new act in 1967 amended the 1906 act adding the regulation of transporters, renderers and cold-storage warehouses to the USDA’s authority, as well as requiring much stricter requirements on imported meat products. In addition, the new act extended the USDA’s jurisdiction over slaughter and processing for intrastate commerce and only allowed uninspected meat to go to the owner of a slaughtered animal.
As regulations, laws, government oversight and an understanding of the need to push food safety forward in light of significant events evolved, so too did the processes of ensuring food safety regarding all the periphery of the meat business.
To read the rest of on the history of food and worker safety, click on the link here.