The American meat industry has been a source of public contention ever since industrialization, periodically brought to the fore by investigations into and revelations of unsafe labor and food safety practices. In particular, Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle reveals the realities of the meat industry at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation reexamines this same industry nearly a hundred years later, finding surprisingly little changed. By comparing and contrasting the two books, it will be possible to examine the evolution of the America food industry as well as how the same problems can reappear a hundred years later if the root cause is not dealt with.
In order to understand the relationship between The Jungle and Fast Food Nation, it will be useful to examine each book's investigation of the meat packing industry separately, before comparing the results of either investigation. The Jungle follows the story of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus and his family as they attempt to succeed in America, and Jurgis' work in slaughterhouses provides the opportunity for a description of workplace practices. Although The Jungle is fictional, and thus not a traditional work of journalism, its depiction of the conditions in slaughterhouses constituted an impactful form of muckraking, and thus may be examined in comparison to Fast Food Nation's more explicit reporting even though the former is filtered through the narrative of an immigrant family trying to succeed in turn of the century America.
In The Jungle, Sinclair describes the unsanitary, unethical, or unsafe conditions in the meat packing industry a number of times, and demonstrates how a variety of factors contribute to these conditions, from corporate complicity to governmental incompetence. The main character, Jurgis, notes "the sharp trick of the floor-bosses whenever there chanced a come a 'slunk' calf," that is, the sometimes result of "a cow that is about to calve, or has just calved," into the slaughterhouse (Sinclair 73). When any of these cows came along, "whoever noticed it would tell the boss, and the boss would start up a conversation with the government inspector, and the two would stroll away," leaving Jurgis to "slide [the cow entrails] into the trap, calves and all, and on the floor below they took out these 'slunk' calves, and butchered them for meat" (Sinclair 74). In this case, the inadequate quality controls stem from the devastating combination of corporate greed and government complicity, or at least ignorance. That the floor-bosses are able to so easily distract the government inspector demonstrates the extent to which the regulatory role had become largely irrelevant. In fact, in order to see exactly how far the meat industry was beyond any genuine regulation, one need only look as far as the next paragraph of the novel, when Jurgis must fill in for a fellow employee and begins to understand the full extent to which the meat packing industry clashes irrevocably with his preconceived notions of America.
When a fellow employee is injured, Jurgis is "ordered to remain and do some special work which this injured man had usually done," after "the government inspectors had all gone" (Sinclair 74). The "special work" Jurgis performs is the slaughter and butchering of the "downers," cows injured on the trip from their original farm to the slaughterhouses. "There were some with broken legs, and some with gored sides; there were some that had died, from what cause no one could say, and they were all to be disposed of," before "being carefully scattered here and there so that they could not identified" amongst the meat from healthy cows (Sinclair 74). Thus, the government inspectors are not even around when the most egregious of violations is going on, and even when they are there, the corporate hierarchy functions in such a way as to keep the inspectors from doing and real inspecting. The "packing-house" functions like a massive machine, with each individual person only one constituent part, interacting with such precision that floor-bosses can maneuver inspectors away from relevant areas, or conduct a massive, nighttime disposal and butchering operation without any oversight.
A comprehensive look at all of the muckraking and descriptive work performed by The Jungle is not necessary for the purposes of this analysis. Rather, these two separate but related instances of corporate malfeasance aided by government incompetence (and impotence) will serve as points of comparison and contrast between the conditions described by the nonfiction book Fast Food Nation, allowing one to see both the evolution of meat industry practices and how corporate disinterest in employee and consumer well-being is continued in modified forms.
As the name suggests, Fast Food Nation does not focus exclusively on the American meat industry, but rather on the rise of fast food chains in America, and underlying cultural shifts which precipitated that rise. However, as a part of this investigation, the book necessarily examines the American meat industry, and finds many of the same underlying problems presented in The Jungle, albeit in a different form. Therefore, just as an exhaustive look at each instance of unsanitary or otherwise unhealthy (for workers and consumers) business practices in The Jungle would not prove productive, so too would a complete account of Fast Food Nation's investigation into slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants be unnecessary. Instead, it will suffice to examine how the meatpacking industry has changed, and how these changes have only exacerbated previously existing problems.
In Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser is invited to tour "one of the nation's largest" slaughterhouses by "someone who has access to the plant, who's upset by its working conditions" (Schlosser 169). Once there, he observes the twenty-first century slaughterhouse, only fundamentally different from that of The Jungle's by its use of technology towards the refinement of each step in the process, something that has not kept meatpacking from becoming "the most dangerous job in the United States" (Schlosser 172). In fact, "in one crucial aspect meatpacking has changed little in the past hundred years. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, amid an era of extraordinary technological advance, the most important tool in a modern slaughterhouse is a sharp knife" (Schlosser 173). Thus, the modern slaughterhouse has retained the dangers of The Jungle's early twentieth century slaughterhouse while increasing the likelihood of those dangers, because where "the old meatpacking plants in Chicago slaughtered about 50 cattle and hour [….] today some plants slaughter up to 400 cattle an hour -- about half a dozen animals every minute, sent down a single production line, carved by workers desperate not to fall behind" (Schlosser 173). This massive increase in production results not only in a subsequent increase in stabbings and other obvious accidents, it has resulted in the creation of a further underclass of meatpacking workers; those who must clean the slaughterhouses.
According to Schlosser, slaughterhouse sanitation crews "are the ultimate in disposable workers: illegal, illiterate, impoverished, untrained" (Schlosser 178). Just as Jurgis performed his "special," illegal work distributing the "downer" meat amongst the meat from the healthy cows at night, away from the prying eyes of government inspectors, so too do the cleaning crews operate after hours, in conditions "so hard and so horrendous that words seem inadequate to describe it" (Schlosser 177). For example, "at a National Beef plant in Liberal, Kansas, Homer Stull climbed into a blood-collection tank to clean it," but "was overcome by hydrogen sulfide fumes," and when "two coworkers climbed into the tank and tried to rescue him," and all three of them died. This was eight years after two men had died in the same tank in nearly the same situation (Schlosser 178). Representing the same problem as the easily distracted government inspectors in The Jungle, "during the same years when the working conditions at America's meatpacking plants became more dangerous […] the federal government greatly reduced the enforcement of health and safety laws," to the point that National Beef only ever had to pay a fine of "$480 for each man's death" (Schlosser 178-179).
Fast Food Nation's investigation of the American meatpacking industry shows that very little has changed since Upton Sinclair originally wrote The Jungle, despite advances in technology and food safety legislation. In fact, the root problems are largely the same, if the symptoms have presented themselves in slightly different ways. A corporate philosophy that puts potential profits over consumer or employee safety coupled with government acquiescence or ignorance foments the devastatingly dangerous conditions in meatpacking plants, both in the fictional world of The Jungle and in the very real packing plant visited in Fast Food Nation. Whereas The Jungle was a novel, using the narrative of a Lithuanian family trying to survive in America in order to examine the American meatpacking industry, Fast Food Nation is a more direct journalistic endeavor and the two serve to compliment each other. Where The Jungle addresses the affects of these working conditions on the individual character, Fast Food Nation offers a broader context as well as the…
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