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Food safety and security -- from 'The Jungle' to the plains

By Justin Kastner


Justin KastnerUpton Sinclair's book, "The Jungle," is widely credited for the introduction of U.S. food protection laws.

But that is only part of the story. Before "The Jungle," Kansas figured prominently in U.S. efforts to protect the safety and security of the food supply.

June 30, 2006, marks the 100-year anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. Beltway-area celebrations will likely credit Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" for awakening the U.S. to food safety and agricultural biosecurity.

First in 1904 as part of a weekly serial and later as the book "The Jungle," socialist activist Upton Sinclair unveiled working-condition and food-safety atrocities in Chicago beef packing plants. Sinclair's expose provided political room for President Teddy Roosevelt to sign food safety legislation in 1906. Sinclair gave the U.S. food protection, some conclude.

However, the annals of U.S. food protection also include events and institutions elsewhere--on the plains, not just in "The Jungle."

Forty years before Sinclair's report, Texas longhorn cattle were being driven across Kansas, trampling crops and spreading a disease--Texas Fever--to Kansas livestock. Kansas cattle, unlike their southern counterparts, were extremely susceptible; four out of five infected with Texas Fever died.

Mindful of the biosecurity threat posed by Texas Fever, the governor of Kansas signed in 1865 a law prohibiting, with few exceptions, the driving of Texas cattle into Kansas. The law--the seriousness of which was underscored by its provision for $1,000 fines and one-year prison sentences--was later loosened and, in 1867, followed by a plea to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for disease-control advice.

Texas Fever was "seriously affecting the interests" of America's livestock industry, the Kansas Legislature stressed. Kansas was fast becoming a major trading center for cattle being sent by rail to markets in Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago. Train depots in places like Abilene, Kan., became the means by which livestock farmers could secure access to eastern markets.

The USDA responded to Kansas' cry for help, and in 1868 Dr. John Gamgee, a British veterinary consultant, was hired to investigate. Typical of the serendipity of scientific investigations, Gamgee's study overturned stones concealing other threats--in Kansas and elsewhere--to agricultural biosecurity and food safety.

Agricultural biosecurity concerns (e.g., rumors, later dispelled, about foot and mouth disease in Neosho Falls, Kan., in March 1884) and food safety problems surfaced. As reports and rumors surfaced, European countries restricted imports of U.S. livestock and meat.

To ensure the continuation of profitable trade flows of livestock and meat through Kansas and Chicago, the U.S. adopted a series of animal disease and food safety laws. Meat inspection acts in the 1890s provided for the inspection of animals for disease prior to slaughter, examination of carcasses for visible signs of disease, and even the microscopic inspection of pork.

This all happened before Sinclair and the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act.

Prior to 1906, then, the international food trade and its economic stakeholders in Kansas had already awakened the U.S. government to issues of food protection.

U.S. food safety and security progress has its roots in both the plains and "The Jungle."


Dr. Justin Kastner is an assistant professor of food safety and security in the department of diagnostic medicine/pathobiology at Kansas State University.


Summer 2006