I’ve been thinking about the word “jungle” lately. No – not the cartoon nor the live action depictions of dense vegetation, replete with white supremacist themes, starring one man who has managed to conquer all manner of beast with merely a yodel. I have been thinking rather of Upton Sinclair’s version that far too few people have actually read or know.

Upton Sinclair wrote brilliantly about the conditions of food processing in the early 20th century in his book, The Jungle. It is in part the tale of an immigrant who was working as a meat packer in dangerous conditions – just because conditions were dangerous. There were no protections, regulations, or safety requirements in place. But immigrants did the work because they needed to feed their families – and because they had seemingly fewer rights, protections and options than US citizens. This is our history.

By all accounts Mr. Sinclair wrote from a political perspective and his intention with the book was to effectuate safer conditions for the workers. In the end, the book was used to advocate for better protections for the food and its processing –  the plight of the workers themselves bifurcated into another conversation.

Regardless, his book is known as seminal because it shone a light on the repulsive and endangering processing conditions and practices. Not just about food dropping on the floor or random human digits being included as lagniappe, or even the probability of cross-contamination. Most regrettable is how it encouraged if not demanded the labor of sick workers.

The Jungle was released in 1906 and spurred the passing of two important laws addressing food safety. (Although I understand how in modern time it is mind-blowing to think the federal government would react so quickly and absolutely to protect food and ostensibly human health; I assure you, it did indeed happen.) The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed through Congress in 1906. Its purpose was to curtail the sale of “misbranded or adulterated food”. Additionally, the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 was signed by Teddy Roosevelt mandating the inspection of animals before processing and the meat after slaughter if it was for human consumption. The objective was to ensure safe and sanitary practices by the meatpacking industry. And though these Acts have morphed through time and enjoyed varying levels of success, we are again hearing of the unsafe conditions at meat packing plants.

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Fast forward to 2020 and the meatpacking industry has returned to the forefront of US minds and reestablished itself as a topic of conversation. Not even if you have been living in the deepest part of the jungle could you be unaware of the pandemic that is Covid-19.  However, news outlets report outbreaks of Covid-19 in meatpacking plants. Are we listening now? Maybe.

What is the correlation between meat packing and human health? What do Covid-19 and meat packing even have in common? Covid-19 is a virus that (far as we know) isn’t passed on via food. But we do know that Covid-19 enjoys airborne transmission at close distances via respiratory droplets. So it makes sense that it passes from person to person. But onto food? Maybe. What we know for sure is that one hundred and fourteen years later we are back to unsafe conditions and outbreaks of sickness in meat packing plants similar but not the same contamination process of the early 20th century.

The current spread of disease is in part because of the advances brought forth by the 21st century and they are helping the spread like wildfire. A recent Wired article suggests the spread may be because of the pace at which the ventilation systems move the air intended to prevent spoilage. However, that pace also allows the virus to remain viable outside of a body much longer than it would under other circumstances.

Why is this important? First, it should remind us to be aware that recycled air puts individuals at risk whether in a meat packing plant, office building, or institution. But this also puts us in a good news – bad news situation. The good news is that smaller processers are seeing a boon in business. Bad news is that the meat supply chain is suffering and thought to already be broken. The meat supply chain is a larger topic; just suffice it to say that the industrial complex we rely upon for meat is faltering for many reasons. The result is the supply has become limited, prices have spiked, and consumers are wanting to hoard, but finding they are not permitted to stockpile. The feeling that this is truly a disaster of biblical proportions is real to many people and the sentiment of “dogs and cats living together” in an time of “mass hysteria” could not be more accurate.

Thing is though, the way we have been producing meat has not worked for decades if not a century. It has put too much pressure on the environment and human health in many, many ways. So the idea that mass manufacturing would collapse may not be such a bad idea after all. And allowing room for small businesses to work, compete, rebuild smaller communities, and pass on the culture and heritage of small batch processing may be a welcome outcome. Small producers are going back to business in areas that are likely closer to your home. And we already know that purchasing from local suppliers (i.e. within a 200 mile radius), can provide multiple benefits – not the least of which it keeps that money in the community and allows small business owners to gain.

In this moment, we have the opportunity to create something better than we had before. But are we again focused on the food and not the worker? Have we paid enough attention to our history to avoid the pitfalls? Maybe. However, in my opinion, we should look to a resolution that would no longer be determined to keep workers in unsafe conditions for the sake of producing food.

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