Monday, January 15, 2007

Shitburger w/ Large Lies, Part 2

By the time I got around to looking at Fast Food Nation, I considered myself pretty aware of food politics. My wife and I had run a child care business. Good nutrition and food safety were important issues to us. I bought free-range and organic foods when I could, and we never ate much beef anyway.

I thought we were doing pretty well, I thought I was a green, progressive consumer, I thought I had heard all I needed to know about the mistreatment of chickens and the lagoons of pigshit. Who cares about a little fast food? It's no big deal. I was doing my part, wasn't I?

There is so much more to the story.

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser assembles an enormous amount of information into a single tome that scathingly indicts the American system of industrial agriculture. What is remarkable about this book is that he mostly manages to eschew the hyperbole of a true believer. Instead, he turns a serious, investigative, and critical eye toward the entire economic and cultural system of fast food. His meticulous research and statistics made my jaw drop and my stomach sick. But he is never dour nor boring, and rarely is he pedantic. He uses humor and humanity to portray the absurdity and the horror of the tale.

Schlosser's central question is "why?" Why is industrial agriculture and the fast food industry the way that it is? In asking this question, he notes that, while the fast food experience has become so utterly mundane and commonplace that it is akin to brushing one's teeth or stopping at a traffic light, there was nothing inevitable about the way it is. That simple idea struck a chord in me. I'd never thought of the problem in quite that way. We lived in an industrial society, so why wouldn't we have an industrialized food system?

It turns out that the food system we have today has a one-hundred year history, dating back to the turn of the last century. In the early 20th century, farming and raising cattle were largely the same as they had been for time out of mind. But urban areas were changing. Chicago meatpackers were subject to appalling conditions, and the meat being processed was filth-ridden.

A young socialist, Upton Sinclair, published his incendiary work The Jungle, which documented the plight of these workers and exposed the foul and potentially harmful beef. Public outcry from this book and from other activists caused such a stir that the Roosevelt administration swiftly enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This became the foundation of the modern Food and Drug Administration.

No comments: