“There was no place in it where a man counted against a dollar. And worse than there being no decency, there was not even honesty.”
So wrote Upton Sinclair about the meat-processing industry in his 1906 masterpiece “The Jungle.”
The result of Sinclair’s undercover work in Chicago plants, the novel sparked changes in the way America processed its food. It would take a while before the nation also addressed the way plants like those depicted ground their employees into sausage.
“The Jungle” is a searing examination of industry’s throw-away approach to the working poor, immigrants in particular.
It is also a look at the art of the swindle, the big-fish chain of exploitation in which desperate people are consumed like plankton in a whale’s belly.
Half a century removed from slavery, Sinclair observed a new breed of slave – except that “the hounds that hunt him are disease and accident, and the villain who murders him is merely the prevailing rate of wages.”
Were Donald Trump a reading man, it would be fascinating to know which figure in “The Jungle” he’d pull for – Jurgis Rudkos, the dirt-poor Lithuanian laboring his life away, or filthy rich “old man Anderson,” the packing plant CEO, watching the family fortune compound thanks to the suffering of so many.
Judging by policies now promoted by the Trump administration, this is no mystery at all.
Team Trump is determined to see that any number of health and safety provisions with lives in the balance are “counted against a dollar.”
Consider that the administration has postponed regulations ordered by the Obama administration to limit worker exposure to beryllium, used in making a host of things, like electronics. It is toxic when crushed into powder.
Meanwhile, Trump killed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, an Obama initiative to enforce federal wage and safety rules in federal contracts.
“The Jungle” caused gasps nationwide about unsafe food preparation. Well, don’t look now, America, but your president has said that today’s food safety laws are “overkill.”
Despite procedures light years removed from the sensory offenses in “The Jungle,” people still die from shoddy food preparation. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 48 million Americans – or one of six – are sickened by food-borne diseases each year, with 3,000 a year dying each year – a 9/11-dimensions toll not to be met with a shrug.
I’m not afraid to eat what I purchase at the store or in restaurants. That is because of heightened, not lessened, diligence by those doing the preparing and producing.
Nonetheless in 2011 an outbreak of listeria emanating from Colorado cantaloupes killed 33 people.
In other words, sometimes it’s a cop-out to leave it at, “Buyer beware.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has set its sights on drug safety. Egads.
The administration has signaled its intent to facilitate a new drug’s approval without the long-standing “efficacy standard” – meaning the FDA’s certifying that the blasted thing works.
This change is driven by industry concerns that drug approval takes too long. “Go ahead and let people try unproven remedies,” goes the medicine-show appeal.
The FDA has done a much better job of expediting new drugs, reports the New York Times. Still, we have situations like arthritis drug Vioxx, withdrawn from the market because it increased risks of heart attacks and strokes.
Sure, our drugs, our food, our worker conditions and their wages are better than anything Upton Sinclair could have imagined.
Are we now seeking to roll back public protections because they are unnecessary, or because “old man Anderson” is now in charge, monitoring the bottom line for himself, his kin, his friends?
Like the moneyed swindlers of Sinclair’s horror story, we cannot trust the man in charge.
Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.