When Meat Was More Deadly Than Combat

“God sends meat, and the Devil sends cooks.” —Thomas Deloney, 1542

In A Nutshell

In 1898, a shipment of hundreds of tons of beef arrived for American troops in Cuba fighting the Spanish-American War. The meat was so badly tainted that many officers attested to the fact it was deadly, with some sources putting the number of soldiers that died at 2,500, while only 385 were killed in action. Within a decade, new laws regulating the meat industry were passed.

The Whole Bushel

During the late 1890s, the United States of America was undergoing a period of extreme imperialism, and one of its opponents became the Spanish Empire. One of the most famous results of the clash was the “liberation” of Cuba during the Spanish-American War. It featured larger-than-life figures and events such as future US president Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the 10th Colored infantry charging Kettle and San Juan Hill. But mostly, like all wars at the time, it involved sitting around being bored and trying to stop any of the threats to their health that living in army conditions usually brought on.

A very severe threat for the soldiers came in the form of 337 tons of refrigerated beef and 198,508 tons of canned meat. Many officers testified that the meat was so unfit to eat that it was giving the soldiers dysentery and other illnesses. By at least one account, the beef contributed to the deaths of as many as 2,500 soldiers. If true, that would have made the beef more than six times deadlier than the battles the Americans fought in Cuba.

Newspapers like William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal began spreading the word that the meat served had been “ancient” or “embalmed.” The claim that it was embalmed was in reference to supposedly harmful preservatives included in the meat such as borax, sulfites, and benzoic acids. This was apparently untrue and possibly only made up by anti-preservative activists (preservatives were an extremely controversial topic at the time). An analysis of the beef found that only 6 percent of it had any preservatives at all, let alone the poisonous amounts it had been suspected of. None of them were the preservatives that were suspected of being dangerous. But no matter: America’s meat-packing industry was suspected of having knowingly provided the nation’s servicemen with unhealthy rations.

The matter of who was at fault became quite muddied as the investigation went on. Part of the blame was given to the Cuban climate, which supposedly had caused the canned meat to spoil faster than anticipated. Another culprit put forward was the idea that the Army’s rations had been improperly balanced in favor of meat, and that what had really been making all those soldiers ill was malnourishment. In short it seemed as if the Army was doing what it could to take the blame for this catastrophe.

Whatever the guilt of the meatpacking industry, it had just made an enemy that was about to become quite powerful and an active crusader. Roosevelt came away from his military experience with a deep distrust of the meat industry even though there’s no record that any of the meat ever made him ill personally. By 1906, and after reading Upton Sinclair’s classic novel The Jungle, he began passing troublesome legislation regulating the meat industry. So perhaps those soldiers that died from their bad food ended up preserving the health and well-being of more people than the liberation of Cuba ever did.

Show Me The Proof

A People’s History of the U.S. Military: Ordinary Soldiers, by Michael A. Bellesiles
How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture, by Jennifer Jensen Wallach
Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, by Bee Wilson