Saturday, January 5, 2008

Do you want to know how the sausage is made?

I am reading Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" (available here:, and it's one of the most poignant descriptions of the turn of the last century, the top of the Gilded Age. It follows a family of Lithuanian immigrants to Chicago who work at the famous "Yards" - the meat packing plants.

There are surprising parallels with the turn of this century - the products that are prohibited in Europe for safety reasons are sold here in the US; federal laws (written by industry lobbyists) that PROHIBIT certain type of product testing for (can you imagine a federal law designed to make something LESS SAFE? Does the hambuger law come to mind?), etc.

And the description of the food production pipeline, and working conditions may not be relevant in the US anymore, but somehow I suspect that they are very relevant for Russia, China, and India even today...

"It was only when the whole ham was spoiled that it came into the department of Elzbieta. Cut up by the two-thousand-revolutions-a-minute flyers, and mixed with half a ton of other meat, no odor that ever was in a ham could make any difference. There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white--it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the
hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one--there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the
system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water--and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public's breakfast. Some of it they would make into "smoked" sausage--but as the smoking took time, and was therefore expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department, and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatine to make it brown. All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it they would stamp some of it "special," and for this they would charge two cents more a pound."

The book Fast Food Nation examines the modern day US fast food industry and has a chapter about meat packing plants as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

yeah, that is one of the reasons I stooped eating meat :-) Btw, one of my summer pocket money making gigs as a kid was meat factory: I dropped out after first tour and could not look on meat after that for weeks ( I did not became vegetarian so just yet). You would not believe how bad this place stinks, even so it was not as bad as described in terms of making stuff : factory was making sousiges for guys in Kremlin ;-)