Beef, Pork, And History

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But he had support at home. A statistical study ordered by the State Department insisted that American hogs had a rate of infestation “much less than that…in any other country.” Any necessary examination could be done at local slaughterers. The blame for cases of trichinosis in Germany probably lay with the Germans themselves, who did not cook their pork long enough to kill the parasites. American newspapers also thundered. A typical New York Herald editorial denounced any government that “in an arbitrary spirit cuts off a supply of cheap and nutritious food…for reasons related to a ridiculously remote possibility.”

U.S. retaliation seemed imminent in 1884, but then cooler voices began to be heard. A few came from enlightened hog breeders who realized that railroads, steamships, and refrigeration had created national and international markets for American meat. Consequently, the time might be ripe for inspection at a national level. The influential Breeder’s Gazette said that if national inspection procedures were adopted, “every [foreign] port in the world” would “open…in a month.” In addition, an independent study commission set up by President Arthur looked at the scientific evidence, admitted that trichinae were by no means uncommon in American hogs, and concluded that research rather than retaliation was the right response to Europe’s anxieties. To this end a Bureau of Animal Industry was set up in the Department of Agriculture.

Slowly, argumentatively, Congress came along. Inspection bills were introduced and died in the 1886 and 1888 Congresses, even while pork exports to Europe sank from seventy million dollars to forty-three million. The proposed measures foundered on such objections as those of Texas’s representative Roger Mills, who saw centralized tyranny lurking behind the federal microscope. “Why, Mr. Speaker, there never was such unlimited power proposed to be given in any free country over the property or the liberties of the people as that which is proposed to be here given. We may as well abandon at once the whole bauble of self-government…[as] give to the President or his Secretary of Agriculture the power to control even the appetites of the people.”

At last a Presidential commission studied the evidence and admitted that trichinae were not uncommon in American hogs.

Finally a legislative compromise was reached. In 1890 a two-pronged bill was passed. It authorized the new Bureau of Animal Industry, at federal expense, to inspect and certify pork products for export. If that did not satisfy the Germans, then the President might retaliate by excluding imports from Germany. But President Benjamin Harrison did not need the stick given him. The Germans, in 1891, rescinded all the offensive decrees. They had said all along that the problem was sanitary, and they were, it seemed, as good as their word. The last shot had been fired in the Pork War.

Do Nugent and Hoy therefore conclude that Bismarck had no interest whatever in tariff protection? Not at all. The Iron Chancellor did not mind in the least that the ban helped him out with Germany’s farm representatives in the Reichstag. Like any statesman, he had many motives. And one lesson of Nugent and Hoy’s article is that in any country political motives cannot be completely separated from such supposedly nonpolitical actions as promulgating public health laws.

And here is another lesson. Old-fashioned progressive historians would see the episode as a happy one in which scientific procedures triumphed over local pride and rooted ignorance. But wait! Microscopic inspection did not solve the trichinosis problem. It proved impossible to identify every infected carcass. In 1907, in fact, the Secretary of Agriculture quietly dropped the microscopic examination because as a practical matter “a reliable inspection for trichinae [was] not possible.” The Germans continued local inspections of their own, employing up to one hundred thousand inspectors (most part-time), and still reported cases of trichinosis.

The fact was that while America then lagged behind Germany in what might be called germ consciousness, Americans had been right in blaming German cooking. The only sure guarantee of safety was to eat pork that was thoroughly roasted or boiled. But Germans often preferred it rare. In the long run Germany eliminated trichinosis only by teaching its citizens to change their eating habits. As Hoy and Nugent note, “The economic nationalism of the late nineteenth century…delayed and obscured this straightforward though difficult solution.”

The final lesson, then, is that even in something as seemingly self-evident as applying scientific evidence to public health problems, the road of advancement can be booby-trapped with error. How a possible “beef war” of the 1990s might end none can say. But self-righteousness on either side of the ocean is neither warranted nor helpful. What history teaches us best in this instance is a little judicious perspective. And also to make sure our pork is well done before it’s eaten.