Fifteen years before muckraker Upton Sinclair would publish The Jungle, an indictment of the Chicago meatpacking industry, President Benjamin Harrison signed the first law that required meat products be inspected before export.
Signed 30 August 1890, the new law directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA, 1862) Bureau of Animal Industry (1884) to inspect salted pork and bacon before they could be exported.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress had created USDA, an agency that Lincoln called “the People’s Department.” About half of the country’s population lived on farms at that time. (Today, it’s less than 2%.)
For centuries, people had associated “unclean” meat with disease. As people moved from farms to cities, they were unable to “personally [observe] food from harvest to consumption.” That lack of transparency was compounded with exports.
In the case of pork, the health concern is trichinosis, which is caused by eating under-cooked pork contaminated with the roundworm trichinae.
In the 1860s, German scientists were beginning to understand the roundworm lifecycle.
“[F]ear and horror” became common, ideas of accelerating infection spread, and Trichinenfurcht (fear of trichinae) became a well-known word in German.
German politician and anatomist Rudolph Virchow explained the relationship between government, butcher and consumer:
What the individual chooses to do is his own affair, but the general public has the task of keeping at bay, as much as possible, general dangers to which the individual may unknowingly fall prey through no fault of his own, and especially of standing by those people who may harm others without intending to, and, where necessary, of monitoring them so that they can truly conduct their activity for the benefit of their fellow citizens.
After the Civil War, more Americans raised hogs; trains, packing plants and ships led to a business in exporting foodstuffs (salted pork, in particular). By 1880, American exports of foodstuffs was twice that of 1870.
But Americans thought trichinosis was “a foreign, primarily German epidemic.”
American officials were fully aware of German health concerns about American pork. The German examination system revealed that 4 percent of American pork products contained trichinae; similar percentages were found for German hogs.
Compounding the concern about unclean pork, in 1879 Germany had the worst harvest in a century.
Trade restrictions followed and not just German ones. From 1879-1881, American pork products were also blocked (partially or fully) by Austria-Hungary, Denmark, France Greece, Italy, Portugal, Rumania, Spain and Turkey.
Because the United States had no system of inspection, it could argue, but not show, that its pork products were safe.
Thus Congress and Harrison developed an inspection system for pork. In 1891, via amendment, Congress also required inspection and certification of all live cattle and beef bound for export.
The era of health inspections for commercially processed food had begun. At least for those foods bound for foreign markets.
In the early 20th century, journalism was “an important tool to raise public awareness of serious societal problems.”
Public outrage over Sinclair’s book strengthened the hand of Progressive reformers within the federal government such as Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief chemist at the United States Department of Agriculture, who had long been at work advocating for legislation to protect consumers. Wiley found a key ally in President Theodore Roosevelt, who championed a more aggressive government policy against those who would harm the public good.
Sinclair’s book and advocacy would lead President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress to deploy federal inspectors in meat-packing houses via the 1906 Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
By 2021, “exports accounted for 29.4% of total U.S. pork and pork variety meat production.” Mexico is the number one market, followed by China, Japan, Canada and South Korea.