For tactical reasons, Roosevelt kept Neill’s report under wraps. He wanted to use it as leverage with Congress—leaking hints of its damning details, and threatening the release of more, to pressure the meat industry’s patrons. This strategy took time, frustrating the politically naïve Sinclair, who wanted the document released, not least to vindicate himself.
Neither man needed have worried. Public support for reform was building. With Roosevelt’s backing, Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana introduced an amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill that imposed stringent rules on meat inspection, including dating canned meat, with meatpackers forced to pay the costs. Spurred by this flurry of activity, the Pure Food and Drug bill—which prohibited the adulteration and mislabeling of foods, beverages, medicines, and other drugs—also now started to advance, separately, toward passage.
On the defensive, the meatpacking and livestock industries joined forces. They warned that any legitimation of Sinclair’s charges would dry up foreign markets for U.S. meat; federal regulation, moreover, would shift control of the industry from the businessmen with the relevant know-how to “theorists, chemists [and] sociologists,” as one spokesman said. When it became clear that some version of the bill was likely to pass, the industrialists switched to trying to strip out the most severe provisions. The beef companies even placed newspaper ads inviting readers to visit the packinghouses and judge for themselves.
While the battle raged on Capitol Hill and in the press, Sinclair capitulated to his impatience. On the evening of Sunday, May 27, 1906, he walked into the office of New York Times editor Carr Van Anda with a briefcase containing letters, affidavits, and other materials that Neill and his team had collected. Van Anda sat Sinclair down for several hours with two Times stenographers, and by 1:00 a.m., a story was ready for Monday’s paper. Roosevelt, who read it the next day, erupted at Sinclair for his “utterly reckless statements.” But he proceeded to make Neill’s full report public, sending it to the House with a call to pass the Beveridge amendment and its meat-inspection provisions.
The beef industry had been routed in the court of public opinion. As the packinghouses literally whitewashed their facilities as part of a desperate cleanup job, the press grew withering. The New York Evening Post offered doggerel: “Mary had a little lamb/And when she saw it sicken/She shipped it off to Packingtown/And now it’s labeled chicken.” Before a House committee, Neill and Reynolds rehearsed with fanfare their gory findings, including an account of a pig carcass that fell into a urinal before getting hung, unwashed, in a cooling room.
House conservatives made a defiant stand, and Roosevelt and Beveridge ultimately made some concessions. But the Indiana senator proclaimed the final bill “the most pronounced extension of federal power in every direction ever enacted.” Its achievements far outweighed its deficiencies, and it established important standards and precedents. On June 30, 1906, Roosevelt, with a stroke of the pen, made meat inspection the law of the land—and with another stroke signed into law the Pure Food and Drug bill. “In the session that has just closed,” he said to the press, “The Congress has done more substantive work for good than any Congress has done at any session since I became familiar with public affairs.”