1906The Meat of the Matter: A Look at the Meat Inspection Act of 1906
The year 1906 brought about a new era in governmental legislation that helped to shape the way privately owned producers of consumable goods would conduct themselves in the future. President Theodore Roosevelt, a man known for his tenaciousness when tackling the issues of the people, pursued these legislative changes, refusing to back down to the lobbyists who stood in his way. One such industry brought to its knees was the meat packing industry, a thriving group of companies that supplied not only the United States but also the markets in Europe with processed foods.
In 1906, socialist Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a book he hoped would awaken the American people to the deplorable conditions of workers in the meat packing industry. Instead, the book sent the country reeling with its description of filthy, rat infested plants, suspect meats processed and sold to consumers, and corrupt government inspectors. President Roosevelt became seriously concerned by the charges brought forth by Mr. Sinclair and determined the only way to protect consumers from unscrupulous business and unsafe food was to enforce regulation.
Although an investigation of the Bureau of Animal Industry, which provided the inspectors of the packaging plants, was ongoing, Roosevelt felt the need to have unbiased investigators look into the matter. Roosevelt and Agriculture Secretary James Wilson “asked Commissioner of Labor Charles P. Neill and New York attorney James Reynolds to undertake an independent investigation.” What they found and reported on became known as the Neill-Reynolds Report and was delivered to Congress on June 4, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Neill and Reynolds corroborated the charges brought forth in The Jungle, stating in one section of their report, “we saw meat shoveled from filthy wooden floors, piled on tables rarely washed, pushed from room to room in rotten box carts, in all of which processes it was in the way of gathering dirt, splinters, floor filth.” When President Roosevelt delivered a statement to Congress on the findings in the report, he said,
It shows the urgent need of immediate action by the Congress in the direction of providing a drastic and thoroughgoing inspection by the Federal Government of all stock yards and packing houses and of their products, so far as the latter enters into interstate or foreign commerce.
The meat packing industry fought back with a vengeance, especially those business owners who felt the report was incomplete. The Franco-American Food Company, based in New Jersey, sent a letter to The New York Times addressed to President Roosevelt and the American Nation. In it, they claimed the Neill-Reynolds report was unfair and that the investigators had only reported on those poorly run operations in Chicago and ignored those that were clean and well run. Their outcries found some Congressmen willing to listen, but it made little difference to a president determined to protect the consumers.
On June 30, 1906, after much haggling between the House of Representatives and the Senate, between lobbyists for the meat packing industry and congressmen who supported radical governmental regulation, President Roosevelt signed the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 into law. Though incomplete in some ways, the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 laid the groundwork for future regulations and governmental guidelines of American industry.
Davidson, James West, and Mark Hamilton Lyle. After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. New York: McGraw Hill, 2005.
Neil-Reynolds Report. 59th Congress. 1st Session, House of Representatives. Document No. 873. June 6, 1904. Primary Source Investigator on CD-ROM, 2005