“If we do not want to eat the stuff ourselves,” declared veterinarian Charles Allen Cary in 1887, “we had better bury or burn it.” Experts of the American Veterinary Association called for more inspections of dairies and slaughterhouses to reduce the amount of tubercular meat and milk reaching consumers.
At the turn of the 20th century, tuberculosis still remained a leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 10 percent of the cases resulted from exposure to infected cattle or cattle products. More distressing was the fact that cattle caused 25 percent of the childhood cases of tuberculosis. More distressing still was the fact that these rates were even higher in cities.
It seemed a losing battle to Franklin K. Lowry, Philadelphia’s official “Meat Detective.” In 1904, Lowry’s office reported nearly 6,400 visits to slaughterhouses and about 700 to the city’s stores and markets. His team inspected more than 205,000 cattle and calves. Nearly all of the infected animals they found and destroyed showed signs of tuberculosis.
Lowry augmented his team with a graduate of Penn Veterinary School, Dr. Albert Fricke Schreiber. Chief Meat Inspector Schreiber ramped up the search for violators and condemned more meat, sending it to M. L. Shoemaker’s Fertilizing Plant at the foot of Venango Street. Even so, with few arrests and even fewer convictions, Philadelphia’s cattle drivers and meat packers conducted business as usual—and new cases of tuberculosis went unabated.
Schreiber and his inspectors visited nearly 44,000 butchers, slaughterhouses (also known as abattoirs), storage houses and markets in 1909. He reported dropping in “quite unexpectedly, late at night, on two small downtown abattoirs” and finding “a tubercular beef carcass, from which the affected tissues had been carefully, if not deftly, trimmed out” and “being dressed for market.” A good day’s work for the meat inspectors, but an unusually successful one. With a “small and inadequate force,” Schreiber had little chance of keeping up with the violations among the city’s 150 or so small abattoirs spread far and wide, about half of which had been cited for unsanitary conditions. Nearly 375,000 pounds of meat was condemned and destroyed in 1909 alone. But it resulted in only a single fine; a single guilty plea. Business as usual.
For Philadelphia to have “something remotely related to intelligent supervision,” Schreiber promoted New York’s solution: confining its abattoirs to a single section of the city. He pleaded that his force of six inspectors (only two of whom were veterinarians) be expanded to twelve, including four veterinarians, a team “approximating the scope of the problem with which we have had to deal.” Then, and only then, could Schreiber hope to seriously address the tuberculosis problem, not to mention citing many other infractions, including “the handing of meat outside in the open air, uncovered and exposed to street dust, refuse and insects.”
In 1910, attrition caused by low pay reduced Schreiber’s team to three, “a force obviously and absurdly inadequate” if the city was “to prevent the killing of tuberculous cattle, measled hogs and immature calves,” and provide anything like “systematic surveillance” of the city’s stores and markets.
The case for more staff had merit on several fronts. In 1910, Philadelphia’s population stood at just over 1.5 million (about the same it is 100 years later) and the city was still growing and diversifying. The meat inspectors needed to not only catch up, they needed to keep up with new challenges.
When the city’s meat inspection unit did expand to eight (not the requested twelve) in 1911, Schreiber still felt overwhelmed. Now, in addition to the ongoing problem of killer cattle, he wanted his inspectors hoped to turn their attention to the city’s “’pest’ sections,” to address “’persistent offenders,’” that “class of dealers, who keep dirty shops in congested localities overrun with street stands, barrow venders, and other features of like character peculiar to the sections of the city inhabited by people of foreign birth.” These newcomers, “vendors of the curbstone and push cart variety…bring in partially decomposed rabbits, heated and unwholesome poultry, and other products.” Schreiber found them “pitifully poor, woefully ignorant of the plainest rudiments of sanitation, and not infrequently belligerently obstinate in their opposition to hygienic regulations.” He found their shops “badly kept, lacking in equipment, …without order or intelligent direction, and sometimes [a] jumble two or more lines of trade obviously not compatible under one roof.”
How could Philadelphia officials address the issue of tuberculosis and also mitigate the new and growing health problems caused by “long rows of curbstone and sidewalk vendors, extending several blocks on some of our streets” with vendors who “litter the roadways, gutters and sidewalks with refuse; and allow street dirt to be “blown over and upon exposed meats, poultry and fish”? In a city evolving daily with a new, growing immigrant population and a persistent, unsolved problem of tuberculosis in cattle, the small number of city meat men had no choice but to take it as they saw it—one day at a time.