Safety warnings are everywhere—invisible, yet everywhere. Time after time, when I tell audiences that packages of raw meat bear a label with red letters and icons listing safe food handling instructions, many people react with disbelief. Over the last two decades, consumers have either become blind to the dangers present in our food or find the truth hard to digest.

While some shoppers might not have noticed that packages on their store’s meat counters include a small warning label, others actually find it strange that there was a time when meat did not come with federally regulated food safe handling labels.  

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) labeling requirements for this label began in 1994, a year after a large-scale foodborne illness epidemic (now referred to as ‘The Jack in the Box Escherichia coli Outbreak’) hit the Pacific Northwest, sending over 500 people to the hospital and resulting in the deaths of three small children. This food safety crisis, as well as the related media attention, triggered a new dawn of food safety legislation.

Sadly, the phrase “History repeats itself” is part of this story.

Long before the 1993 outbreak, the world first took notice of the unseen dangers on their dinner plate with the publishing of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. Even though Sinclair’s intended message was support for socialism, readers’ attention was grabbed by the two chapters in which he described conditions in which meat was prepared. In adding Sinclair’s novel to a list of books that shaped America, the Library of Congress describes his work as a “graphic exposé of the Chicago meat packing industry” that “…lead directly to national legislation.” Teddy Roosevelt intended the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act to end the meat industry scandal that impacted not only the American consumer at home, but also the industry’s efforts to sell product abroad.

Although there is no true substitution for reading The Jungle, one can get a sense of how the novel impacted readers from The London Times Literary Supplement literary review of the book in 1906.

This first excerpt talks not of the context of socialism, but of the shock from the revelations of conditions inside meat packing houses.

“The book is published as a novel, and it might claim to be reviewed, therefore, under the head of fiction. But the very first thing to be said about it is that, if it is a novel, a work of imagination and invention, the conduct of an author who invented and published in a form easily accessible to all readers, young and old, male or female, such disgusting, inflammatory matter as this would deserve the severest censure.”

The British reviewer goes far beyond warning potential readers of this new novel by noting that, because Sinclair published the book as fiction, the grotesque nature of the meat industry managed to elude censure while bringing these issues into the public light. Imagine the difference in reaction if this had been published as non-fiction.

The reviewer goes on to connect to its real world context and validates the reality of the novel’s content.

“Unhappily we have good reason for believing it to be all fact, not fiction. The action of the President…remove all doubt, and give the book very great importance.”  

Finally, the 1906 reviewer turns The Jungle into a warning and accurately predicts the concerns we would still face 100 years later.

“…it is with nothing less than horror that we learn it to be true. The things described by Mr. Sinclair happened yesterday, are happening today, and will happen tomorrow and the next day, until some Hercules comes to cleanse the filthy stable.”

As indicated in the literary review, Roosevelt sent his own team of commissioners to personally go see if the conditions reported by Sinclair were authentic. In response, the Franco-American Food Company posted an open letter to the president and the American public (NY Times, June 8, 1906) in which they denounced these claims.

“We regret that if you feel confident the report of your Commissioners is true, you did not make the investigation more thorough…we consider the Commissioner’s statements incomplete…we appeal to your sense of justice and to that of the American people…”

In 1906, The Jungle motivated significant changes in legislation and public perception of not only the food industry, but also of food safety in general. Readers of not only the novel, but also of this literary review learned that warnings alone will not keep the buyer safe from hidden dangers. Instead, food safety requires the might of many stakeholders along what we now refer to as the ‘Farm to Table’ continuum. The 1993 The Jack in the Box E. coli Outbreak, along with continuing news of food recalls, outbreaks and even deaths related to meat contaminated with E. coli and other pathogens, demonstrate that history continues to repeat itself. Today, while some Hercules is still needed, the stable has radically expanded from that which Sinclair investigated.

Darin Detwiler, M.A.Ed., has over 20 years of involvement in food safety reform. He has worked with USDA to gain the federal regulation of food safe handling labels on meat. After earning national certification as a U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Science Educator in 2003, the Secretary of Agriculture appointed Mr. Detwiler to two terms as a USDA regulatory policy advisor on the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (2004–2007).