In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle ignited a firestorm in the United States. A fictionalized account of the life of immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry in Chicago, it painted a sensationally accurate picture of conditions in the plants. Theodore Roosevelt “hit the White House roof” and invited Sinclair to come to Washington. The first food and drug laws were immediately passed, and the Food and Drug Administration soon followed.
The first commissioner of the FDA was Harvey Wiley, the head of the Department of Chemistry. Even before he took office, the food and drug manufacturers were trying to get rid of him. Their campaign failed to derail his appointment, but they continued their opposition, inventing scandals and undercutting him in every way possible. Ultimately, Wiley left the agency and went across the street to “Good Housekeeping” magazine. There he created the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” which became the trusted gold standard for testing food and drug products for American consumers.
In 1929, Wiley wrote a memoir he called The History of a Crime Against the Food Law: The Amazing Story of the National Food and Drugs Law Intended to Protect the Health of the People, Perverted to Protect Adulteration of Foods.
Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed Wiley, was a Progressive and a conservationist. He championed a “Square Deal” for regular Americans and an end to the Gilded Age’s unfettered Capitalism. The establishment of the regulatory system was one of the most important and lasting accomplishments of his Presidency.
From its very beginning it was being undermined.
In 1982 George Stigler won the Nobel Prize in Economics, in large part for his work on “Regulatory Capture,” the phenomenon described by Wiley in his memoir, written more than 50 years before.
Today, under this “leadership,” virtually every regulatory agency is now headed by an individual who opposes its mission and has spent a good portion of their career trying to undermine its work.
And the conditions Sinclair described in The Jungle are being exposed again in the meatpacking plants and the health threats to the “essential” but low paid workers trapped inside these horrific centers of contagion are once again sources of outrage for the American public.
When we talk about “systemic problems,” whether about race, economics, the environment or anything else, this is what we are referring to. After more than one hundred years of trying to “reform” predatory capitalism, it is clear that this is an impossible task. The problems have only become deeper and wider, and the need for systemic change more obvious.
This is no time for half measures, symbolic gestures, commissions or investigations.
The time for action is now.
Abraham Entin is a life-long activist for nonviolent social change, beginning in 1962 with the Civil Rights Movement. His memoir, Living on the Fringe, was published by Steiner in 2018. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of this paper or its corporate ownership.