Muckrakers: Differing Styles in Upton Sinclair and Eric Schlosser

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser are two extremely different books about the same topic: the American food industry. Paired excerpts explore the behind-the-scenes work that goes into processed food and how the industries mislead or deceive the public. However, the authors’ presentations of the industry and messages are so different from one another as to make them unrelated on all levels except for the topic.

Sinclair, a 19th century journalist for a social newspaper, was examining working conditions in Chicago stockyards when he was inspired to write his book. Under the disguise of fiction, he reveals the various disturbing means used by the Chicago meat-packing industry to create canned foods. Bringing up every element of a can of deviled ham from beef tripe to cow gullets, Sinclair spares no nauseating detail in strangely matter-of-fact descriptions like, “It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face; and when a man’s sleeves were smeared in blood, and his hands steeped in it, how was he ever to wipe his face, or to clear his eyes so that he could see?” (Sinclair 352). These repulsive details are employed very intentionally to upset the reader and send the author’s message. Sinclair even goes as far as to claim that some of the factory’s products had “killed several times as many United States soldiers as all the bullets of the Spaniards” (Sinclair 352).

The book being released only eight years after the Spanish-American War, lines like these make it unsurprising that The Jungle was shunned by all of the publishers the author sought. Sinclair wasn’t content with describing every sickening detail about the ingredients in canned meat—he also completed his original purpose, which was to evaluate working conditions. He mentions a shocking variety of ailments prevalent in meat factory workers, from rheumatism to butchered hands to tuberculosis to falling into enormous vats. Regarding the latter, Sinclair concludes with the sickening assertion that workers who came to such a fate were often not found until “all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaflard!” (Sinclair 355). Through describing the working conditions and contents of its products, the author thoroughly and completely expresses his disapprobation for the meat-packing industry in this dark and persuasive novel.

At times offering a cheery contrast to Sinclair’s revolting description of 19th century meat packing, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser provides insight into, among other topics, the chemistry behind engineered flavors. As a journalist, Schlosser was permitted entrance to the main facility of International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), one of many facilities in the New Jersey industrial parks that he claims manufacture two-thirds of all the flavor additives that are sold in the United States. At first, the excerpt from his book seems like it must be building to some harsh, persuasive conclusion about the food industry, in lines such as, “…the manipulation of volatile chemicals to create a particular smell. The basic science behind the scent of your shaving cream is the same as that governing the flavor of your TV dinner” (Schlosser 361). At this point, Schlosser comes off as one of the countless authors who prey on the average American reader—the uninformed and gullible person who knows “volatile” to mean liable to sudden violence and who thinks “chemicals” to mean toxic compounds like arsenic and hydrogen cyanide, rather than knowing that a volatile chemical is a scientific class of liquids that includes such harmless ingredients as water and rubbing alcohol. Schlosser continues to expound on the formation of recognizable flavors, revealing that perfume companies created the first flavor additives and listing by, their full and lengthy names, all forty-nine ingredients in an artificial strawberry flavor. These and many other instances in the passage seem prime opportunities for the author to follow up an analysis with a powerful argument against the inventors, against the marketers, against the manufacturers, against something—but Schlosser proceeds in an unexpectedly non-confrontational tone. While he doesn’t take the care to list them out in another massive paragraph, he concedes that a the smell of a real strawberry is comprised by over 350 chemicals.

Although criticism of the industry is apparent upon examination of Schlosser’s diction and phrasing, it is generally veiled by his human error: his inability to remain critical of processes and research by which he is so impressed. He describes his sampling of an artificial flavor in the sentences, “Grainger’s most remarkable creation took me by surprise. After closing my eyes, I suddenly smelled a grilled hamburger. The aroma was uncanny, almost miraculous. It smelled like someone in the room was flipping burgers on a hot grill. But when I opened my eyes, there was just a narrow strip of white paper and a smiling flavorist” (Schlosser 368). Even if the author will decide to persuade against or denigrate the processed food industry in the rest of the book, the message this passage conveys is mostly informative and oddly reassuring.

Unhealthy America: Critiquing the Fast Food Nation

In Fast Food Nation, Erik Schlosser addresses the fast food business and the revolutionary impact it has had on the American food industry in the past few decades. Schlosser discusses how fast food was integrated into American society to such an extreme that it has spread to every corner of the nation. The reasoning behind why fast food has so speedily dominated the diet of the American people is not hard to distinguish – people want a meal that is both easy and cheap, and these qualities are the foundation that the fast food industry was built on. However, fast food does have its drawbacks, ranging from its unhealthy impact on the body to its contribution of erasure of regional differences across America. Throughout his novel, Schlosser writes about the impact fast food has had on America, primarily questioning why it has been so successful, how it has come to shape America, and what consequences it has inflicted upon society today.

While a variety of fast food businesses have succeeded, an even greater number of unknown chains failed along the way, ones like “Sandy’s, Carrol’s, Henry’s, Winky’s, and Mr. Fifteen’s,” along with many others (22). So what was the distinction between failure and success for a fast food chain? When fast food was first discovered, people rushed to create their own businesses, going so far as to create intricate machines that traversed a series of steps in order to produce just one burger. Ultimately, the fast food chains that triumphed over the multitude of others all had three major traits in common: uniformity, inexpensiveness, and efficiency. As work in America has become more demanding, workers have acquiesced more hours and effort for their jobs, leaving little to no time to prepare a meal at home. For overworked employees, parents, or students allotted only a meager amount of free time, their only concerns lay with how quick and inexpensive a meal is – not the consequences it may have on America in the future.

Over the past decades, fast food has become an inescapable part of American society, and is unavoidable even to the minority of Americans who do not eat it. When regarding the foundations that shape modern America, the first thought that comes to mind after “freedom” is often “McDonald’s.” Consequently, fast food is so deeply ingrained into society that it is considered normal – the American people do not think twice about the millions of fast food chains littering the country. Not often is it seen as a vilification to America, a facet of society that should not be, unless one comes to think about and consciously acknowledge it. In a way, it has come to mold not only American culture, but business; in the provided passage, Schlosser states that “The basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today’s retail economy” (5). The domination of larger corporations in American business today, along with many other problems in modern society, can inevitably be traced back to the start (and success) of the fast food industry.

Above all, the most prolific feature of fast food is the negative impact it has had on America and its people. A vast majority of America’s problems stem from – or are a direct result of – the fast food industry. Most obviously, fast food contributes directly to the already high and rising obesity problem in America. However, the problems stemming from fast food are not limited to physical – fast food also erases regional differences among the country, or even any differences. Whereas before there may have been a higher level of diversity in cuisine across America, the rapid spread of fast food ensures a certain culinary conformity regardless of location. Another complication that arises from the fast food industry is its exclusion of smaller industries in the business; since people want familiar brands and companies, smaller businesses are often ignored in favor of the more known one. By not allowing lesser known businesses to acclimate into the industry, consumers will perpetually favor the larger, and more popular, corporation.

Ultimately, the influence of fast food on American society extends far beyond the takeout window. From media to culture, fast food can be found ubiquitously across America – and no matter where it may be, people are likely to buy it. It may be beneficial on an individual level, but as a whole, fast food has a detrimental impact on America and its’ people. Although there may never be a replacement for fast food, there are alternatives, such as buying snacks or simply stopping by healthier restaurants. However, one fact remains: if consumers are willing to buy, then the fast food industry’s influence over modern American society will only continue to grow.