Muckraker or Prophet? Returning to Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle' in 2023

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle highlighted the grim conditions and challenges faced by immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry of the early 20th century. After catching the attention of America, President Theodore Roosevelt initially called him a “crackpot," but President Roosevelt still invited him to the White House and investigated the truth of Sinclair’s story, which led to some of the most sweeping food safety legislation including the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

After reading The Jungle earlier this year, I drafted an article to highlight all the progress that the food industry has made. However, in light of the recent New York Times coverage of the child labor investigation in the meat industry, I thought it would be worth revisiting The Jungle to dissect the parallels of immigrant labor and food safety concerns between the industry in 1906 and today as well as proposing ways for food companies to leverage innovation to improve working conditions and food safety.

Immigrant Labor

In "The Jungle," Sinclair vividly portrayed the exploitation of immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe, who sought employment in Chicago's meatpacking plants. Today, the modern food manufacturing industry still heavily relies on immigrant labor, particularly in physically demanding, entry-level positions.

According to the Center for Economic & Policy Research, “About 17 percent of workers in the US workforce today are immigrants. But more than one-half (51.5 percent) of frontline meatpacking workers are immigrants.” Immigrant workers often face language barriers, lower wages, and challenges in accessing healthcare and social benefits, echoing the experiences of Sinclair's characters.

Similar to Jurgis, the main character, my grandpa immigrated from Ireland to Chicago for jobs and the American Dream, and I’ve benefited greatly from the opportunity that stemmed from his hard work. Although labor conditions have come a long way since 1906, there is still ample room for improvement.

After visiting dozens of plants throughout the year, technology is one area that can immediately transform how the food industry cares for its workforce. While not everything can be automated in food production, any task that can be automated greatly reduces the demanding labor for the workforce. At Allera, we automate production and quality documentation using AI (which can also overcome the language barrier with documentation experienced by migrant workers), but there are dozens of ways to automate production. By doing so, the quality of output improves along with lessening the pressure on employees.

Food Safety Concerns

In 1906, when President Roosevelt invited Upton Sinclair to the White House to determine the truth of Sinclair's novel, it wasn't that President Roosevelt and the American people didn't care about food safety; it was that they didn't fully understand the far-reaching consequences of how their food production practices affected the safety of their food.

The Jungle served as a stark wake-up call, revealing the shocking conditions within meatpacking plants and the dangers these conditions posed to public health. The American people, inspired by Sinclair's exposé, demanded change, leading to some of the most sweeping food safety legislation in history.

Fast forward to the modern food manufacturing industry, and food safety has become a central focus. Over the decades, we've made significant strides in understanding the intricate link between production practices, food safety, and public health. Today, regulatory bodies, advanced monitoring systems, and stringent standards ensure that food products are subject to rigorous scrutiny at every stage of production.

Technological advancements have also played a pivotal role in enhancing food safety. Innovations such as real-time monitoring, digital traceability, and AI-driven quality control have transformed the way we ensure the safety of our food supply. These technologies not only minimize contamination risks but also allow for rapid recall and precise traceability in the event of safety concerns.

Yet, despite these advancements, we must remain vigilant. Ensuring food safety requires a collective effort, and the food industry must continue to invest in cutting-edge technologies and best practices to maintain the highest standards.


In revisiting The Jungle in 2023, we see a powerful reminder of the enduring importance of immigrant labor and food safety in the food industry. The progress we've made since 1906 is significant, but there's always more work to be done.

The modern food industry has the tools and technologies to improve working conditions and enhance food safety. Automation and AI can alleviate some of the demanding labor, improve efficiency, and reduce the pressure on employees, especially immigrant workers. By embracing innovation and prioritizing these critical aspects, we not only honor the legacy of The Jungle but also ensure the safety and well-being of all those who contribute to our food supply chain.

What do you think? Is Sinclair a Socialist Muckraker or a Prophet of the food industry that still offers wisdom today?