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Food safety
Aug 29, 2008

The Canadian food industry has made great strides over the past century when it comes to consumer protection, although the present outbreak of food-borne Listeriosis disease shows the system is not infallible.

Actually, the phrase “what a difference a century makes” aptly applies to the meat-packing industry.

When it was announced in 1906 that the largest packing house in Winnipeg had been bought by an American company, it solicited a public outcry and became an issue in the Canadian Parliament. “If Americans were coming to Canada and going into the packing business an inspection of methods was all the more desirable,” said Senator Bernier. Senator Cartwright expressed astonishment at the “astounding disclosures of the American packing methods,” and promised the government was prepared to deal with the question of meat inspection.

The alarm over the meat-packing industry in Chicago — American poet Carl Sandburg's “hog butcher for the world” — even reached London, England, and was the subject of heated exchanges in the House of Commons. 

The public’s indignation was prompted by a serialized novel by Upton Sinclair that weekly graced the pages of the socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, starting in February 1905. Called The Jungle, Sinclair’s serial became so popular that it was published in book form in 1906, which made its findings about the deplorable conditions in meat-packing plants available to readers outside the United States.

Sinclair concentrated primarily on exploitation of immigrant workers, but it was the novel’s tales of rat feces ground into sausages, gangrenous cattle butchered and sold, so-called disease-riddled “downers” physically carried to the slaughterhouse, as well as dyes and chemicals used to disguise foul-smelling decomposing tinned meat which led to the outcry. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Sinclair remarked.

At the time, Canada relied heavily upon the Chicago packers to supply public demand for tinned meat.

“All the reports of the press regarding the filthy conditions surrounding the preparation of meat in the packing houses are not in the least exaggerated,” P. Smith, a visitor from Chicago, told a reporter for the Winnipeg Morning Telegram. “Carcasses wholly unfit for consumption, that have been declared unfit for food by local inspectors, have been thrown into the rendering tank and then taken from there by a trap door ... to be sold to the people of Chicago as pure meat.”

It is no wonder that Winnipeggers were suspicious of an American company taking over the city’s largest meat-packing plant. 

When Sinclair’s novel was published, the meat-packing tycoons vigorously protested that their plants were well-inspected (actually, they bribed inspectors to turn a blind eye) and claimed their kill floors and canning facilities were impeccably clean.

When interviewed during a Paris visit, Ogden Armour, owner of one of the largest meat-packing plants in Chicago, responded in anger after the subject of unsanitary conditions was brought up. “I say that no sane man, nobody with the slightest knowledge of the packing trade as it is conducted in Chicago, can believe the horror stories in the newspapers,” he claimed. Armour angrily insisted the “whole of these so-called revelations have been directly engineered by President (Teddy) Roosevelt,” who had “a strong personal animus against the packers.”

Armour’s tirade was completely opposite to the recent reaction of Michael H. McCain, the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, when news that Listeria monocytogenes had contaminated prepared meat at the company’s Toronto plant and caused several deaths and other cases of illness.

Maple Leaf announced recalls after an investigation by the Canadian Food 

Inspection Agency matched the strain of bacteria to their Toronto plant.

“From our standpoint this is the right thing to do,” said McCain in a press release. “If there is any question in the consumers’ mind about any product from that plant, then the onus is on us, and the CFIA, to act decisively and swiftly to restore consumer confidence. Our actions are guided by putting public health first.

“I absolutely believe that this is not a failure of the Canadian food safety system or the regulators. Knowing there is a desire to assign blame ... the buck stops right here,” added McCain.

On the other hand, the profit-driven Chicago meat-packers of 1906 would accept no blame and had absolutely no concern whatsoever about the safety of their products.

This was quickly realized by consumers of the era, who en masse boycotted meat products. In Canada, tighter regulations passed by the U.S. Congress brought about the fear the Chicago packers would use an export “loophole big enough for all the diseased carcasses of Packingtown (the name of the Chicago neighbourhood where plants were located and employees lived) to (be) tossed through” to foreign countries.

Still, Canada “benefitted materially by the cry raised over the filthy condition of Chicago packing houses,” as it educated the public and forced the Canadian government to ensure domestic abattoirs underwent closer inspections.

The recent Listeria outbreak has had a similar effect, forcing the Canadian public and governments to again focus on food safety issues after years of near indifference. Canadian meat-processing plants may be among the most sanitary in the world, according to the CFIA, but the Listeria outbreak shows further improvements can be made.

“This is a serious concern ... It’s necessary to reform and revamp our food- and product-inspection regimes after some years of neglect,” admitted Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper may have taken his cue from Maple Leaf Foods which has undertaken a massive clean-up of its Toronto plant and eaten a $20 million loss to assure the Canadian public it is acting in their best interests rather than its own.

Nothing can console the grief of the families who have lost loved ones as a result of the outbreak, but it’s hoped their deaths have not been for nothing and lessons can be learned — as was the case in 1906 — on how to prevent future disease outbreaks originating from meat-processing plants in Canada.