[T]he meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.
This long description from Chapter 14 is among the most famous and influential passages in the novel and helps to explain why the book caused so much public furor upon its publication. Sinclair intended the book to raise public consciousness about the plight of the working poor, but he relied on a pseudo-naturalistic technique that emphasized the physically revolting filth and gore of the stockyards. As a result, the novel caused outrage about the unsanitary quality of the meat that was sold in stores rather than the oppression of the poor. The public pressed less for the socialist reforms that Sinclair backed than the public reform to food laws. The image of all kinds of waste being dumped in with the consumer’s product is surely revolting; that it is dumped in without any regard for the consumer by greedy capitalists is infuriating. Sinclair himself stated: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”