When Government Spreads Disease: The 1906 Meat Inspection Act

Government has been spoiling stuff since well before the TSA

You know the old myth about the meat-packing industry. In 1906, Upton Sinclair came out with his book The Jungle, and it shocked the nation by documenting the horror of the meat-packing industry. People were being boiled in vats and sent to larders. Rat waste was mixed with meat. And so on.

As a result, the Federal Meat Inspection Act passed Congress, and consumers were saved from ghastly diseases. The lesson is that government is essential to stop private enterprise from poisoning us with its food.

To some extent, this mythology accounts for the wide support for government’s involvement in stopping Ebola today. Not only that, but the story is also the basis for the US Department of Agriculture’s food inspection efforts, the Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of medical drugs, the central plan that governs food production, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the legions of bureaucrats who inspect and badger enterprise every step of the way. It is the founding template for why government is involved in our food and health at all.

It’s all premised on the implausible idea that people who make and sell us food have no concern as to whether it makes us sick. It only takes a quick second, though, to realize that this idea just isn’t true. So long as there is a functioning, consumer-driven marketplace, customer focus, which presumably includes not killing you, is the best regulator. Producer reputation has been a huge feature of profitability, too. And hygiene was a huge feature of reputation — long before Yelp.

Lawrence Reed deals ably with other myths of the meat-packing industry. Sinclair’s book was not intended as a factual account. It was a fantasy rendered as a socialist screed. It did drum up support for regulation, but the real reason for the act’s passage was that the large Chicago meat packers realized that regulation would hurt their smaller competitors more than themselves. Meat inspections imposed costs that cartelized the industry. That’s why the largest players were the law’s biggest promoters. Such laws almost have more to do with benefiting elites than protecting the public.

Still, there is more to this little-known history that speaks to the entire basis for government management of health. The legislation required federal inspectors to be on site at all hours in every meat-packing plant. At the time, regulators came up with a shabby method for detecting bad meat, namely poking a rod into the meat and smelling the rod. If it came out smelling clean, they would poke the same rod into the next piece of meat and smell it again. They would do this throughout the entire plant.

But as Baylen J. Linnekin points out in “The Food-Safety Fallacy: More Regulation Doesn’t Necessarily Make Food Safer” (Northeastern University Law Journal, vol. 4, no. 1), this method was fundamentally flawed. You can’t necessarily detect pathogens in meat by smell. It takes a long time for bacteria to begin to stink. In the meantime, bacteria can spread disease through touch. The rod could pick up bacteria and transmit it from one piece of meat to another, and there was no way for inspectors to know about it. This method of testing meat most certainly spread any pathogens from bad meat to good meat, assuring that an entire plant became a house of pathogens rather than having them restricted to just one carcass.

As Linnekin explains:

USDA inspectors undoubtedly transmitted harmful bacteria from one contaminated piece of meat to other uncontaminated pieces in untold quantities and, consequently, were directly responsible for sickening untold numbers of Americans by their actions.

Poke-and-sniff — incredibly a centerpiece of the USDA’s meat inspection program until the late 1990s — was, in terms of its sheer efficiency at transmitting pathogens from infected meat to clean meat, nearly the ideal device. Add to this the fact that the USDA’s own inspectors were critical of the inspection regime from the start, and that the USDA abdicated its inspection role at hundreds of meat processors for nearly three decades, and it becomes quite apparent that instead of making food safer, poke-and-sniff made food and consumers less safe.

Yes, you read that right. Poke-and-sniff began in 1906 and was common until the 1990s. The USDA’s own website recounts the career of one meat inspector who praised the shift from the old practice, a practice that persisted longer than even Soviet communism.

When people teach about this history in a conventional classroom environment, they tell the story of meat-packing horror and the act’s passage. But there the story ends. There is a pervasive lack of curiosity about what happened next. Did the regulations achieve their aims? Did the situation improve, and, if so, was this improvement due to the regulations or to private innovations? Or did the problem get worse, and, if so, can the worsening be traced to the regulations themselves? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask.

As for why bad practices last and don’t get weeded out through experimentation, this is the way it is with regulations. Once a rule is in place, no one can seem to stop it, no matter how little sense it makes. You know this if you have ever been in the TSA line at the airport. The sheer irrationality strikes me every time — and it strikes the TSA employees, too. They are taking away bottles of shampoo but allowing lighters on planes. Sometimes they confiscate a corkscrew and other times not. They test your hands to make sure you haven’t been handling bombs, but the sheer implausibility is so apparent that the inspectors themselves can hardly keep a straight face.

Whenever government imposes a rule, it begins to operate as if on autopilot. No matter how brainless, damaging, irrational, or outmoded it happens to be, the rule ends up trumping the reasoning of the human mind. This becomes a very serious matter regarding health. Ruling this sector of life, you don’t want an overlord who is unresponsive to new information and new evidence and innovation — a regime that specializes in following a routine, no matter how bad, rather than improving itself with a testable goal in mind.

This is why in societies where governments rule, all things slip into a frozen state. This is why even today Cuba seems like a tableau of the 1950s. This is why when the curtain was pulled back on East Germany and the old Soviet Union, we found societies that seemed stuck in the past. This is why the postal service can’t seem to innovate and why public schools are still structured as if it were the 1970s. Once a government plan is established, it tends to stick, even when it is not achieving its aims.

The case of poke-and-sniff in meat-packing should serve as a warning for all government regulatory measures, whether designed to protect us from disease or bring us safety or any other reason. We live in a world of change and of growing knowledge. Our lives and well-being depend on economic systems that can respond to change, extract that growing knowledge, and enable it to be used in ways that serve human needs. A competitive market economy specializes in doing just that. 

{{article.Topic.Topic}} {{article.Topic.Topic}}

{{article.Title}}

{{article.BodyText}}