Unexpected Consequences – How The Spanish-American War Improved American Food

Receiving the news of the surrender of Santiago.

America declared war on Spain in 1898. In the aftermath, the Spanish Empire came to an end, the US grew bigger, and the US Food & Drug Administration came into effect.

It all began in 1823 when President James Monroe created the Monroe Doctrine. It decreed that while the US accepted European colonies in the Americas, it would not tolerate further European expansion in the New World. During the American Civil War, the US was too busy to enforce the decree.

In 1868, Cuba fired the first shot in an attempt to obtain independence from the Spanish Empire. After ten years of fighting, Cuba remained Spanish property.

By 1894, the US was buying 90% of Cuba’s exports (twelve times more than Spain), while 40% of Cuba’s imports came from the US. The US was also beginning to expand its navy and wanted to build a canal in either Nicaragua or Panama. The plan was supported by President Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

José Julián Martí Pérez was a journalist, professor, poet, and political theorist. He was also passionate about Cuban independence. He set up offices in Florida and New York where he worked, taught, bought weapons to smuggle back to Cuba, and preached the evils of the Spanish Empire.

Roosevelt, who had been entertaining thoughts of an overseas empire, loved it! Pérez returned to his beloved homeland in 1895 with an army. Spain responded brutally, and America condemned the response as “not civilized warfare” but “extermination.”

America, therefore, declared war on Spain on April 21, 1898. It had widespread support from the American public and businesses that depended on Cuba. However, the US was not prepared.

Spain’s attitude toward the US in 1896, showing a greedy Uncle Sam grabbing Cuba.


It had a little more than 28,000 troops. That number increased ten-fold due to American newspapers printing lurid stories about Spanish atrocities. The soldiers were supplied with heavy wool uniforms – completely impractical in Cuba’s tropical climate. Nor did they have enough medical equipment and supplies.

Worse, they did not have enough food for 280,000 men. To address the problem, Secretary of War Russell Alexander Alger contacted Chicago’s “Big Three” meatpacking firms. His orders were simple. They were to provide as much meat as possible, at the lowest possible price, and quickly.

They complied, but it was pre-regulation America. The 327 tons that made it to Cuba was stringy, tasteless, and smelled like an “embalmed dead body,” according to Commander of the Army General Nelson Appleton Miles.

Col Theodore Roosevelt stands triumphant on San Juan Hill, Cuba after his “Rough Riders” captured this hill and its sister Kettle Hill during the Spanish American War.


Thousands of American soldiers in Cuba and the Philippines were already suffering from malaria and yellow fever, but due to their food, they got worse. Although exact figures are not known, it is believed many more troops died from diarrhea, dysentery, and food poisoning than they did from Spanish bullets.

Miles pleaded with the government to buy local beef but the Commissary General of Subsistence, Brigadier General Charles Patrick Eagan, refused. He was a great supporter of the meatpacking industry and argued that buying local beef would cost the government far more.

As more American soldiers continued to become ill and die, Miles had enough. He publicly accused “someone in Washington” of conducting an “experiment” on American lives. When pressed, he named Eagan. The government was forced to set up an inquiry headed by Major General Grenville Dodge.

The commission found that while some of the beef had indeed been tainted, the vast majority was fine. Eagan retaliated by accusing Miles of lying and other unsavory things, which the military deemed unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. Eagan was court-martialed and dismissed, although his sentence was commuted. Alger was asked to resign.

Soldiers continued to become ill, forcing the Military Beef Court to get involved. The Spanish-American War ended on August 13, 1898, with Spain’s defeat. The following year on February 4, the Philippine-American War broke out as the US lay claim to the former Spanish territory.

Spanish POWs in Manila, Philippines during the Spanish-American War.


On July 2, 1902, the Philippines officially became US territory. Over 250,000 locals had been killed and roughly 6,000 Americans; few from canned beef. It should have ended there but for one man.

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. was a journalist who published “The Jungle” in 1906. Sinclair had been investigating the plight of immigrants as well as the unsavory practices of Chicago’s meatpacking plants. He showed how meat was stored in unrefrigerated rat-infested rooms or beside open sewers, and how most “meat” was little more than offal.

General Nelson Miles and other soldiers on horseback in Puerto Rico in 1898.


The public outcry forced the Labor Commission to investigate his claims, as did Roosevelt, who ordered his own inquiry into the matter. The president famously declared that Sinclair was a “crackpot,” as well as “hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful.”

To everyone’s horror, Sinclair’s claims turned out to be true. Despite that, Roosevelt was wary of any regulation over the meatpacking industry and its labor practices that he deemed “socialist.” Still, he could not ignore a furious public nor a hysterical press calling for blood.

American troops raising the Flag at Fort San Antonio De Abad, Malate, Philippines, 1899.

Sales of American canned beef fell by half – both domestically and internationally. To salvage the industry’s reputation, revive declining sales, and improve the country’s image abroad, Roosevelt signed the Pure Food & Drug Act on June 30, 1906. He also signed the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

Enforcement fell to the Bureau of Chemistry in the US Department of Agriculture, which in 1930 was renamed the US Food & Drug Administration. The Meat Inspection Act is now called the Food Safety & Inspection Service.

In fighting Spain, the US not only acquired overseas territories (including Puerto Rico and Guam), it also learned to regulate and improve the food industry.