The Meat Inspection Act of 1906

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Have you ever heard the phrase 'mystery meat?' In this lesson, you will learn about the history and provisions of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 that regulated the meatpacking industry in America.

The Food You Eat

Think about all of the different foods that you eat on a daily basis. Now, take a moment to think about the ingredients in your food--do you know what you're actually eating? Today, the government regulates what companies are allowed to put in your food, and most packaged items include an ingredient label. However, over 100 years ago, that wasn't the case. At the turn of the 20th century, packaged foods like canned goods were becoming more and more popular, but what companies put inside of those cans was truly scary!

Early Concerns With the Meatpacking Industry

In the late 1800s and early 1990s, the meatpacking industry was booming in America. Factories were able to quickly process meat and pack it into tins so it would keep for long periods of time. During the mid-1880s, Dr. Harvey W. Wiley--a chemist who worked for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates the farming industry--began to ask questions about what exactly meat companies were putting in their products. According to Wiley, the chemicals used to preserve and change the colors of the food were unhealthy and possibly unsafe. In 1884, Wiley founded the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists to increase government regulation of the food industry.

Armour & Company

In 1898, the meatpacking industry had a big problem on its hands. Armour & Company, a meatpacking company, knowingly put rotten meat into cans and mixed it with chemicals to cover up the horrible smell. The canned meat was sent to troops fighting in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. You can probably guess what happened next: The people who ate the meat became very sick! In some instances, the rotten meat actually killed people. One year later, a former Armour & Company employee blamed the company's actions on a lack of government oversight and openly admitted that the company used spoiled and poor-quality meats.

Investigating the Meatpacking Industry

In response to the Armour & Company incident, the government commissioned the Pure-Food Investigating Committee to look into the practices of the meatpacking industry. The committee came back with a startling report: The preservatives used to keep meat fresh were not fit for human consumption. The list of preservatives included borax, salicylic acid, and formaldehyde. Do any of these chemicals ring a bell? Borax is commonly used with laundry detergent to make your clothes cleaner; salicylic acid is one of the primary ingredients used in acne face washes; and formaldehyde is used to preserve dead bodies. Can you imagine eating those chemicals?

Muckraking and The Jungle

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States was in the midst of the Progressive Era. People around the country actively pushed to reform American society and government. Among these progressive reformers, a group of journalists called muckrakers wrote articles that exposed the dirty underbelly of America. The meatpacking industry became the target of famous muckraker Upton Sinclair. In 1905, Sinclair published a series of magazine articles that exposed the horrifying realities of factories owned by five large meat companies referred to as the Beef Trust.

Sinclair claimed that the factories were extremely unsanitary and the companies intentionally used sick and diseased animals in their products. They lied about the types of meat and the cuts of meat they used as well. A can of beef stew might not have any beef at all, but it could very well include horse meat. To cover up the poor quality of their mystery meat, the factories mixed in a toxic chemical concoction to change the color, flavor, and smell of the food.

Within a year, Sinclair's articles were published as a book called The Jungle. Americans across the country read his work with alarmed fascination. Even President Theodore Roosevelt read it! To investigate Sinclair's claims, the government commissioned the Neill-Reynolds report. The report confirmed what Upton Sinclair already knew: The meatpacking industry was effectively poisoning consumers, and that needed to change.

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