Eric Schlosser’s book on the evils of fast food told everyone a truth they didn’t want to hear. A century ago, Upton Sinclair did the same thing, and changed the world.
Remember Fast Food Nation? Of course you do. Blood, burgers, disease, chicken nuggets, death, fries. The least nutritious meals since we stopped eating mud for lunch. The worst working conditions this side of China, or indeed the 18th century. The most predatory marketing since the Romans invaded everyone to show them how awesome their empire was.
I read it in 2003, and it’s one of the few books that has truly changed my life.
My life Before Fast Food Nation (BFFN): I wasn’t eating fast food all the time, but didn’t have a problem with it. I gave them some of my hard-earned cash maybe once a month.
My life AFFN (work it out): I have darkened the doors of a certain well-known fast food manufacturer a total of three times in the past nine years. (Don’t ask me why I gave in on these occasions. Suffice to say, it was disappointing: turns out that when you haven’t eaten it for a while, it doesn’t taste as good as you remember. Ever.)
It’s not just the stats I remember… 90% of meat-processing plants examined had faecal matter on the conveyor belt.
It’s not just the vivid mental images that have stayed with me… Workers at the plants frequently had their limbs forcibly removed by the machinery. The lines never stopped. There’s a good chance you’ve eaten human flesh in a burger.
It’s not just the ridiculously ruthless marketing that made an impression on me… Hey kids! Fast food is the coolest! Eat loads now!
It’s all of it, combined. Most of all, the fact that 25% of America’s population eats fast food every day. This isn’t a small problem…not in any sense of the word.
And guess what I found out the other day?
In 1906, a journalist named Upton Sinclair published The Jungle. He told the American people that meat-packing plants routinely ground poisoned rats in with mouldy meat, for public consumption. He described the heat of the ‘killing beds’ in summer, where workers would be so saturated with the intense stench that you could smell them 50 feet away, and three men in a day died of sunstroke. He detailed the inhumane conditions suffered by workers whose job was to trim the meat from diseased cattle.
His exposé of the meat industry in the United States was even more shocking to a 1906 audience than FFN was to its early 21st century readers. President Roosevelt sent two men to investigate the meat-packing plants undercover. Even though the inspection was leaked to the factory, and the workers worked triple shifts daily for three weeks to clean up in preparation, the inspectors were still horrified by what they saw.
Roosevelt submitted their report to Congress on 4th June 1906. Under pressure from the public, the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act were passed, which paved the way for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.
And the moral of the story is…
…books can change the world. It’s true.
Read Fast Food Nation, be informed, be horrified, vote with your feet. Schlosser has various recommendations for changes to legislation. But he is totally convinced – and so am I – that the single most effective thing you can do is just to eat elsewhere until things improve.
The men who run McDonald’s aren’t bad men – they’re businessmen.
Which is to say, they will do what it takes to get customers to walk in the door, because that is their job. They are not deliberately setting out to feed you unspeakably horrific stuff disguised as food. However, so long as the customer is happy to eat faecal matter, human flesh, and a crapton of fat along with his chicken nuggets, that’s what the customer will continue to get.
If [insert your name here] simply decided to take your money somewhere else, the businessmen running fast food chains would have to change things until they persuaded you to come back.
A hundred years ago, people read The Jungle and ultimately achieved the reform of a merciless industry that was poisoning them. Maybe it’s time for us to do the same.