By raising the consciousness of consumers to the shocking conditions in the stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meatpacking facilities of Chicago, The Jungle helped launch federal regulation of the food industry.

Seldom does a work of fiction have dramatic, long-term effects on the day-to-day operations of a major industry. Such, however, was the case with Upton Sinclair, UptonSinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, which became the catalyst for creating new structures regulating health and safety in U.S. food production. In 1904, the socialist weekly newspaper Appeal to Reason sent Sinclair on an investigative visit to “Packingtown,” a slum district of Chicago where many of the nation’s Meatpacking industrymeatpackers lived and worked. The result of this visit was to be a novel exposing American readers to the Safety, worker;meatpacking industryhardships of urban working-class life. Though Sinclair hoped the novel would establish his reputation, neither he nor those financing his trip could have foreseen the impact it would have.Jungle, The (Sinclair)

The plot of The Jungle follows the fortunes of the Rudkus family, Lithuanian immigrants living in the slums of Chicago. The protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus, works in the meatpacking industry, and during the course of the novel he endures imprisonment, the deaths of his wife and young son, and a long series of injuries and humiliations at work. The book shined a harsh light on the horrors of life in desperate poverty. It revealed the filthy and dangerous working conditions in the stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meatpacking plants where profit motives gave rise to corner cutting, corruption, and shocking abuses of workers.

The Jungle was published in early 1906 and immediately made an international splash. As the editors of Appeal to Reason had intended, readers learned about the deprivations of America’s urban slums. Safety, consumer;foodFar more disturbing to many readers, though, were revelations of the dangerous and dirty conditions through which much of the nation’s meat supply passed. Descriptions of workers injured and killed by heavy machinery were horrifying enough. Even worse was the realization that meat sold around the United States (and exported abroad) was frequently contaminated with filth and rat poison from unsanitary packing plants, and even with human blood and body parts.

Upton Sinclair.

(Library of Congress)

Public outcry was so loud that government action soon became all but inevitable. Steps were taken to improve conditions in the industry and to counteract corruption. Legislation passed in the summer of 1906, mere months after The Jungle’s publication, mandated more stringent inspections of both the meat itself and the plants where it was processed. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906Pure Food and Drug Act led to the establishment of the agency that later became the Food and Drug Administration; it was thus a major milestone in the increasing federal oversight of industry, labor, and commerce in the United States.

Further Reading

  • Barrett, James R. Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers, 1894-1922. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
  • Mattson, Kevin. Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century. New York: John WIley & Sons, 2006.

Beef industry

Food and Drug Administration

Food-processing industries

Literary works with business themes

Meatpacking industry

Pork industry

Poultry industry