Poke-and-Sniff: How U.S. Regulators Became Disease Vectors
When government tries to fix a problem, it often makes the problem worse or creates a new one. The German economist Horst Siebert called this phenomenon the “Cobra Effect.” Occupational licensees and those in heavily regulated industries will recognize the pattern immediately.
American high schools routinely teach Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle.” Its publication more than a century ago led to the quintessential success story for federal regulation. But once regulators began doing something to fix the problem portrayed in Sinclair’s fictional work, they created a bigger, non-fictional problem that sickened Americans over many decades.
Sinclair worked undercover at a meatpacking plant and then wrote the novel, which exploded onto the scene in 1905, bringing the appalling conditions of the U.S. meatpacking industry into the drawing rooms of everyday Americans. It vividly described the unsanitary and dangerous working conditions in meatpacking plants and the widespread distribution of tainted meat to the public.
The novel inspired a whole generation of activists and reformers (and no doubt more than a few vegetarians). It gave rise to muckraking journalism, which aimed to expose social and political problems and promote reform. President Theodore Roosevelt used the novel as a catalyst to push for stronger regulation of the food industry. It led to the passing of several statutes and regulations, including the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. These laws required the federal government to inspect all meatpacking plants and ensure that the food produced in the United States was safe for human consumption.
So, a reasonable person would think a massive federal program deploying thousands of new inspectors at meatpacking plants across the country would make eating meat much safer, right?
Well, that reasonable person would be wrong. The novel ushered in an era of never-before-seen cross-contamination of the nation’s meat supply due to a benighted inspection practice called “poke-and-sniff.” No novel was ever written about poke-and-sniff, since the industrial-scale transfer of pathogens by men in white coats with badges never captured the public’s imagination.
What is poke-and-sniff? It’s a method by which a meat inspector presses a metal spike into a cut of meat and then sniffs it to determine whether it has a fresh or unpleasant odor. Federal inspectors would stick a metal spike into one piece of meat, smelling it, and then stick the same spike into the next piece of meat along an endless conveyor belt. It seemed like an efficient way to do things at the time.
Unfortunately, there was no novelist with the skills of an Upton Sinclair to write about poke-and-sniff and, let’s face it, the antics of clueless federal bureaucrats don’t make for compelling copy. The story lacked drama.
Even if no cross-contamination were occurring – which it was – the practice’s efficacy was dubious. As food-safety author Baylen Linnekin points out in “The Food-Safety Fallacy: More Regulation Doesn’t Necessarily Make Food Safer,” poke-and-sniff was fundamentally flawed, since human smell doesn’t necessarily detect pathogens in meat. It can take a long time for bacteria to begin to stink.
But well-meaning inspection practices embraced at the dawn of the last century deserve some leeway. After all, germ theory was still a work in progress when Sinclair wrote “The Jungle.”
But by 1920, germ theory was settled science among public-health officials. So, a reasonable person might imagine that regulators, seeing the dangers of cross-contamination, curtailed poke-and-sniff by 1920. That reasonable person would be wrong.
But surely the cross-contamination by federal inspectors would have ended by 1930. After all, penicillin, the first true antibiotic, was discovered in 1928. Nope, here, again, a reasonable person would be wrong.
Unconcerned federal inspectors continued the practice for another 50 years. They can be viewed poking and sniffing here.
Wrote Linnekin, “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.”
He believes federal inspectors were directly responsible for sickening untold numbers of Americans by their actions.
“[The practice] was ridiculous,” said author and consumer journalist John Stossel, “but governments often do ridiculous things, and regulators once they start doing something stupid, tend to keep doing it.” Never has the phrase, “I’m with the government, and I’m here to help” dripped with more irony.
Wrote Jeffrey A. Tucker, founder and president of the libertarian-leaning Brownstone Institute: “[The regulations were] all premised on the implausible idea that people who make and sell us food have no concern as to whether it makes us sick.
“So long as there is a functioning, consumer-driven marketplace, customer focus, which presumably includes not killing you, is the best regulator.”
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