Nearly a hundred years after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001) documents a full-circle return to the horrendous conditions in the meat industry that provoked a Presidential investigation and led to congressional action on food safety in 1906. This book covers a lot of ground… and a lot of ground beef. And it confirms, with its broad, meticulous research, the biblical text, “…who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
Schlosser uses the device of mini-biography, sketching the founders of the changes in U.S., and ultimately world, culture, starting with a hot dog stand in southern California transposing into the first car-culture drive-in restaurant, and proceeding through Walt Disney, McDonalds, the subsequent transformation of the meat and potatoes industry and the U.S. epidemic of obesity. It is not off-topic to note that both Disney and most of the other founder “giants” were (are) enthusiastic disciples of what Noam Chomsky calls the religion of anti-communism. Disney employed former Nazi and SS Major Wernher von Braun, who had avoided Nurenberg thanks to his rocket scientist status. He hosted films promoting, what else, nuclear power. This “cult” feared not the brutal hierarchal nature of the “monolithic communist conspiracy” but rather the anti-capitalist critique central to its ideology. The evolution of the fast food nation is concurrent with and perfectly aligned with what has come to be called globalization. The fervor with which scoundrels seek the refuge of patriotism is a reflection of the fact that this movement, taking us back to the good ol’ days of 1900, is driven by what drove it then, greed. Where it brought us then, the great depression, is where it is bringing us once again. What rescued us from that pit was a desperate compromise and a devastating war, not a solution the life system can tolerate this time. The choice is embodied in Chomsky’s book title, Hegemony or Survival.
The myth of globalization is that it is as natural as the cycle of the seasons and as unstoppable. McDonalds buys so much beef and potatoes that it can dictate conditions (and price) to its suppliers, insisting on certain tests for toxins or changes in production methods (if there’s bad publicity). These producers in turn make demands of farmers/ranchers that affect choices there, not necessarily healthy ones for farmer or consumer. Call it the corporatization process where concerns for health, environment and workers are minimized in order to maximize profits. An old story yes, but today’s version amounts to the feudalization of the planet. The demands made by the fast food industry, like globalization in general, could include worker, consumer and environmental well-being but the pervasive logic of greed insists on never-ending transfers of wealth from the many to the few. Ten years after this book exposed the corruption and dangers of slaughterhouse practices the USDA (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture), under the “socialist” Obama, is today proposing that the poultry industry provide its own inspectors on a voluntary basis. The paltry number of government inspectors are objecting and its more than their jobs that concern them. This can no doubt be traced to political pressure since huge industries with deep pockets contribute to presidential, senate and house campaigns (in virtually unlimited ways with recent pro-corporate supreme court decisions) and participate in the revolving door that spits regulators out into the industry they’ve been regulating and industry “experts” into the regulation bureaucracy. Speed ups of slaughterhouse lines result in more disease, injuries and of course profits. Non-unionized workers, many recent immigrants or undocumented and vulnerable, low-paid with high turn-over rates, toil under desperate conditions that hearken back to The Jungle… children are indoctrinated by television advertising to coax their parents, however reluctant, to visit seductive centers of waste where they become addicted, life-long customers of the fast fat food empire. Feudalization is incompatible with democracy. If it triumphs it will be an underappreciated victory for like the terrible malignancy of cancer, rampant replication guarantees its own demise.