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Beef, Pork, And History

June 2024
5min read

We often hear solemn pronouncements about the need to learn the “lessons of history.” But which ones? A single event can offer a variety of lessons.

I was powerfully reminded of this when, around the start of this year, a great battle over beef appeared to be brewing between the United States and the European Community. The member nations of the EC were preparing to halt imports of American beef from animals treated with hormones to speed up and increase their growth. European health authorities forbid the practice to their own farmers, even though it enhances profits.

U.S. officials issued bristling rejoinders. Americans, they said, showed no ill effects from the meat in question. The alleged “health issue” was a shield behind which the EC was wrongfully imposing a protective tariff. The United States could and would strike back. TRADE RETALIATION READIED IF EUROPE BARS MEATS OF U.S. , said one headline. Was the United States defending its farmers in a fair fight? Or trying to bully other governments out of their duty to protect their own people as they saw fit?

As I read these stories, a phrase kept ringing in my head: “Pork War.” Dimly I remembered that in the 1880s the German government had shut out imports of meat from American hogs, thereby inducing considerable outrage and threats of economic counterattack in Washington. I recalled the story as having vague medical overtones but basically describing a tariff encounter.

Was my memory right? I dialed the number of Walter Nugent, who specializes in late-nineteenth-century U.S. history, and asked. He told me I was wrong—along with the previous writers on the subject on whom I had relied. But no matter. I had hit pay dirt in the form of a new story, far more interesting than what I thought I knew.

Nugent, it turned out, was co-author of an article on the very subject of the Pork War, appearing in the June 1989 issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine . His collaborator, Suellen Hoy, works in the new field of public history—basically the development of governmental institutions. Dr. Nugent and Dr. Hoy both teach at Notre Dame, are good friends of mine, and are also husband and wife.

Unlike previous researchers, they took seriously Germany’s claim that its ban on American pork was not a tariff but a step in disease control. That put an entirely new face on the old saga of the battle of economic giants. As they tracked their way through medical and diplomatic literature, they began to see instead a picture of a modern health-related bureaucracy slowly and clumsily emerging in the two nations.

What the German government feared in 1881 was trichinosis, a disease caused by a tiny parasitic roundworm, trichina (or Trichinella spiralis ), which lives in the muscle tissue of some swine. The symptoms run from simple abdominal distress to infections that kill. As late as 1942 there was a fatal outbreak in the New York area. Even now 15 percent of America’s people and 20 percent of its pigs may harbor the worm.

Trichinosis in humans had been painstakingly studied in the 1850s and 1860s by the German pathologist Rudolf Virchow, a trailblazer in the identification of disease-carrying microorganisms. Virchow became convinced that it was vital to inspect German hog carcasses microscopically at the time of slaughter and to forbid the sale of those with trichinae. A legislator as well as a scientist, he campaigned effectively for laws to that end, which were passed by the various component states of the German Empire in the late 1870s. The inspectors—more than eighteen thousand of them—were not veterinarians but minor officials trained quickly. Despite the incompetence of many of them, the imperial chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, did not hesitate to claim perfect logic when he got the Reichstag to enact the ban on uninspected and possibly death-dealing American pork. It was only a matter of the national government’s picking up its protective responsibility.

But to Americans it was not logical at all. For one thing, there was no constitutional or historical precedent for a central government’s taking an interest in keeping citizens free of germs. Public health was a local or at most a state affair. And in any case, neither the relatively new germ theory of disease nor the use of the microscope to confirm it had taken much hold among American doctors.

Hence Americans could only conclude that Bismarck’s health talk was flimflam. His true motive was to protect large German landowners who raised pigs. Such a political maneuver Americans could understand, if not approve of. This view of things especially possessed our minister to Berlin, Aaron Sargent, a former senator from California. He ignored reports from his own consular officials confirming German health concerns and vigorously collected anti-Bismarck opinions for his own dispatches to the State Department. His criticisms and cries for retaliation finally grew so strident that in 1884 Washington had to recall and replace him.

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.

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