Meat Inspection during the Progressive Era

Published 31 Jul 2017

History books dedicated on the Progressive era of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries picture an administration entirely advocated for the good of the American public. Ground-breaking laws concerning the food and the meat industry, laws which were for the safety and health of the American public, were instigated and fought for by President Roosevelt—a man known for his unfailing principles for the betterment of the Nation.

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However, as some accounts would provide, certain facts that our history books provided seemed dubious. The real facts surrounding such incidents, when later revealed, showed an administration, a President moreover, who was less concerned of the general health and welfare of the citizens, but more on his public and professional image, and perhaps how he would be regarded by history itself. Gabriel Kolko’s Meat Inspection—Theory and Reality, deals with these eye-opening facts regarding the real stories suppressed in the annals of American history, and shows us, the American public, as well as the whole world, the true circumstances behind the President’s decision concerning these matters.

Officially, the meat inspection scandal of 1906 recounts the work of Upton Sinclair, a young writer from The Appeal to Reason, in writing a story regarding the inhumane and filthy living conditions of the workers in the American meat packing industry. His subsequent novel, The Jungle, based on the said report, caused much frenzy on the American public that it resulted in the Congress and President Roosevelt passing a more stringent meat inspection law, specifically designed in uplifting the living conditions of the workers as well as the quality of America’s meat packing industry (Kolko, 1963, p. 98).

The real issues, however, based on the book by Kolko, was the urgent need by the American meat industry to improve on its quality of meat export, especially since its major partner-countries, such as Europe, France, Australia, Spain, Denmark and Germany have banned its importation of meats from the United States (Kolko, 1963, p. 99). The banning of the said countries is the result of some reports claiming that American cattle were infested with pleuropneumonia, and some of those exported were already diseased livestock. Furthermore, to aggravate the meat packers’ dilemma, the local market opted to shy-away from American meat and look for an alternative, this time on Argentine meat. Thus, as Kolko points out, only America’s poor sector were the only buyers of their meat products.

A long and arduous undertaking was initiated by Congress, that by March of 1891, it had passed the very first major meat inspection law, which necessitated every business entity in the meat exporting industry in the United States to acquire an approval from a Department of Agriculture inspector, cattle were required to undergo microscopic examinations, and pre- and post-mortem examinations (Kolko, 1963, p. 99).

The second topic discussed by Kolko involved the enactment of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Along with the Meat Inspection Act, they are considered to be the epitomes of America’s progressivism, health, and decency (Kolko, 1963, p. 103). The Pure Food movement, which was started by Harvey W. Wiley, grew into importance for its fight for unadulterated, honestly labeled food products. This fight, which was later adapted by the National Board of Trade through different state legislatures and the food industry itself, was in actuality carried on because of the harm being done by the small players on the bigger corporations.

Here, Wiley, an unswerving Republican until 1912, was apt in commenting regarding President Roosevelt’s attitude towards the reforms being undertaken on the food and meat packing sector: “It is not true that Mr. Roosevelt championed the law in its bitter fight for passage in Congress” (Kolko, 1963, p. 104).


History, it seems, had been practicing bias and favoritism in favor of President Roosevelt on matters concerning the Meat Inspection and the Pure Food Acts. He had been painted as the principal force behind the radical and dynamic changes that transpired in America’s progressivism and conservatism movement, when as records and testaments would reveal, President Roosevelt was perhaps even the one who would have antagonized these reforms, if not for his conscientious self-awareness, based primarily on his popularity and image from the American public.

Two good men, Upton Sinclair and Harvey Wiley, who have displayed great resolve in pushing for these reforms despite of their respective criticisms and unjust treatments, are certainly to be commended. Not only for reviving America’s economy during those lean years, rather more importantly for instigating changes which until now have been the greater basis for America’s leadership in the global market of meat products and its continuance of providing the highest quality possible.

Without these two men, America would not have erased the world’s perception of our meat products as being filthy and disease-bearing, and would have made it improbable for other partner-countries to lift their bans on our food products. These would also certainly have a greater effect on the economy during the Depression Period of the 1930’s, and would have magnified the nation’s economic hardships of the era.

Perhaps it is wise for a nation to honor its past Presidents, but more importantly perhaps, it would prove to be wiser to also honor the people who had made the tough decisions, economic or otherwise, in making the President boast of a respectable legacy.


  • Kolko, G. (1963). The triumph of conservatism: A re-interpretation of American History, 1900-1916. United States: Cats Cradle Books.
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