Though Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is a work of fiction, its detailed description of the American meatpacking industry is based on extensive observation of real-life conditions. This is what makes the book such a powerful indictment of unregulated capitalism in the United States of the early twentieth century.
In the meatpacking industry, both workers and meat products alike stand as the inevitable by-products of an economic system where profit is king and the protection of workers and consumers is of no consequence.
To a considerable extent, workers in the industry are treated like the pieces of meat they handle, which are subsequently put into meat products produced in disgusting, unsanitary conditions.
Sinclair's detailed description of meat processing revolted many of his readers, whose stomachs were turned by reading about consumptive workers coughing and spitting blood on the floor where they were working and men in the pickling room with skin diseases.
Yet even this pales in comparison to his description of the fate of those unfortunate workers who fall into lard vats and become lard themselves before anyone's found out what's happened to them. For many people, this is the most disturbing excerpt in the book.
Both the workers in the meatpacking industry and the meat that they handle are damaged goods. The main difference between them, however, is that the meat is a much more valuable commodity to the meatpacking companies than their workers, who are systematically exploited, over-worked, and underpaid.