We’re not out of the jungle yet

Feb. 23, 2009

by Ivan Raconteur

I was in high school when I first read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, and the graphic descriptions the book painted of deplorable conditions in the American slaughterhouse industry made even a dedicated carnivore like me think twice about eating meat – at least for awhile.

Sinclair’s goal was to spread awareness about the abominable working conditions in the packing industry, but he only half succeeded.

The public was more concerned about what they were eating than how their fellow Americans were being treated.

The book, published in 1906, was instrumental in reforms, including the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

More than 100 years later, we are still struggling with issues related to food safety.

Most manufacturers are extremely responsible, and probably exceed the minimum safety requirements dictated by law.

It doesn’t matter much if they do this because they are conscientious people or because it is a competitive industry, and they need to turn out quality goods in order to succeed.

Whatever the reason, we are fortunate to have a food industry in this country that is both diverse and safe.

I would rather take my chances buying groceries in this country than anywhere else in the world, which is good, since commuting overseas to do my shopping would be inconvenient.

But, as the recent salmonella outbreak and revelations about the conditions at plants operated by the Peanut Corporation of America illustrate, the system isn’t perfect.

More than 600 people became sick, and nine are dead as a result of the outbreak that has been traced to the company’s Georgia plant.

Even more troubling was news of the company’s Texas plant, which operated for almost four years without applying for a license or being inspected.

Now, all of the products produced in the Texas plant have been recalled, and the company has filed for bankruptcy.

Reading about the dead rodents, rodent excrement, and bird feathers discovered in the plant reminded me of the conditions described in “The Jungle.”

We don’t expect conditions like these to exist in this country today, but obviously, in a very small number of instances, they do.

The problem is that we are relying on the voluntary compliance of manufacturers to ensure that our food is safe.

We have laws, of course, but like any law, the food safety laws are only as good as their enforcement.

Even if the Texas plant had been licensed, the resources available for conducting inspections are spread frighteningly thin.

It has been reported that in Texas alone, there are 21,000 food manufacturing facilities and only 42 inspectors.

Simple arithmetic suggests that they don’t get to each facility very often, and if they do make it to a plant, the inspectors can’t possibly spend much time there.

It seems likely, then, that many facilities do not get inspected until someone lodges a complaint.

It is probably safe to assume that the plant owners are not voluntarily requesting extra scrutiny.

But, what about the employees? They are in the best position to see what is going on in the plant, but are they likely to blow any whistles?

Given the state of the economy and the number of people who are losing jobs or having hours cut, it would not be too surprising if the employees tried to hold on to the jobs they have without rocking the boat.

It is a difficult ethical question, but one can see how, if it comes down to a matter of supporting their families or blowing the whistle on the odd rat or bird that might tour the facility, these employees might be inclined to keep their mouths shut.

Apart from tips from workers, the other way potential violations are likely to be discovered is if problems are tracked down after people have become sick.

Unfortunately, this takes time, and, as in the case of the recent peanut problem, hundreds of people may become sick before the source of the outbreak is identified.

Components that are processed in a single plant can spread out and be used in hundreds or thousands of other products nationwide in a short period of time.

As good as our food supply is in this country, it could be better, and relying on voluntary compliance or rare inspections may not be enough to get us completely out of the jungle.

Times are tough, but if we don’t adequately fund agencies that conduct food inspections, we could end up with things on our dinner plates that we didn’t expect – or want.