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Fast Food Nation | Context

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Muckraking and Investigative Journalism

As a journalist who investigates the corrupt practices of large businesses with the hopes of spurring progressive change, Schlosser has much in common with American writers in the early 20th century. Rapid industrialization during the early 1900s led to dangerous working conditions in factories, poverty in overpopulated cities, and corporate magnates gaining great wealth by unethical means. As the Progressive Era (an era focused on social and civic reform) began, journalists wanted to contribute to change. But first they had to raise public awareness about the nature and depth of the problems.

In the late 1800s Henry Demarest Lloyd and Ida B. Wells, two of America's first investigative journalists, published popular, controversial stories in magazines and newspapers. Lloyd wrote about corruption in big business, Wells about civil rights and segregated education.

The reading public enjoyed exciting magazine stories such as the "yellow journalism" of the late 1800s, characterized by sensational, exaggerated features and headlines to increase sales. However, some of the articles—though not thoroughly researched or factually accurate—were not always complete fabrications. Magazines such as McClure's and Cosmopolitan began publishing long pieces by enterprising journalists, often "serializing" a story by publishing it in installments to keep readers coming back for more. The magazines circulated nationally, and the story topics, described by writer Harold Evans as "crooks in City Hall"; "opium in children's cough syrup"; "rats in the meatpacking factory"; and "cruelty to child workers" were both fascinating reading and horrifyingly educational.

On the more responsible side, muckrakers (journalists interested in exposing corruption) Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker were three of the biggest and most authoritative names in the new confrontational journalism, or what is now known as investigative reporting. In 1903 McClure's published Tarbell's "The History of the Standard Oil Company," which exposed Standard Oil as an industrial monopoly. She described wealthy businessman John D. Rockefeller as a man with "the powerful imagination to see what might be done with the oil business if it could be centered in his hands." Baker wrote "Following the Color Line," a groundbreaking work on America's racial divide. Steffens, an editor of McClure's and a well-known reform-minded political philosopher, wrote a series of articles collected under the title The Shame of the Cities. Many other journalists were associated with this kind of reporting, including Jacob Riis, Nellie Bly, David Graham Phillips, and Upton Sinclair. Sinclair's book The Jungle (1906) was a shocking exposé of conditions in the meatpacking industry and is still well known today. Schlosser mentions The Jungle and the outrage it inspired, adding the book did not lead to improvement in meatpackers' working conditions as Sinclair hoped.

These journalists combined journalism with literary techniques to create a new and engaging style of human-interest reporting. Their stories spun narratives with real-life heroes and villains. Steffens believed journalists, like artists, should strive for subjectivity, honesty, and empathy in their work. The controversial topics affected the lives of readers and urged them to push for change.

In the early 20th century, American domestic policy started to shift from laissez-faire capitalism—a French expression meaning "allow to do" and describing a system in which the government doesn't interfere in commerce—to a system in which the government works more actively to shape institutions and care for citizens. The Jungle, for instance, was partially responsible for Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt passing the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Roosevelt supported the new journalists, until they went after him. When David Graham Phillips published "The Treason of the Senate," Roosevelt gave a speech in response, comparing the journalist to a character from John Bunyan's book The Pilgrim's Progress: "the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands." Roosevelt believed the writers focused only on the crimes or "muck" of America, and the name "muckrakers" stuck.

The muckraking movement lasted only briefly, but it had a great impact. In addition to pushing for policy changes, muckrakers motivated new generations of journalists to write compelling human-interest stories with attention to narrative detail and with a clear call for reform. Writers who work in this style, sometimes called "the new new journalism," include Schlosser, Jon Krakauer, Alex Kotlowitz, Susan Orlean, and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Schlosser mentions writers Tom Philpott, Corby Kummer, Wendell Berry, and Alice Waters as influential reporters of the new "food movement."

The History of "Fast Food"

The term "fast food" is instantly recognizable to Schlosser's readers. Restaurants may have served quickly prepared food as long ago as in ancient Rome, where street vendors fed city dwellers who had no cooking space. The term itself evolved from the revolutionary "fast" speed of service in the 1950s, which Schlosser describes in the chapter "The Founding Fathers," catering to Americans' newly busy and car-centered lives. By 1951 the term "fast food" was so widespread it was included in that year's Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Once "fast food" began to signify unhealthy and greasy food in the popular imagination, McDonald's and other restaurants attempted to find a new term. Shake Shack describes its food as "fine casual," Arby's as "fast crafted," and Dairy Queen as "fan food." Spokespersons for McDonald's expressed the desire to create a "modern, progressive burger company." The new words imply attention to quality and a better, healthier dining experience. The industry's attempt to recast its image is no surprise to Schlosser. He discusses the importance of corporate branding in response to customer desire, particularly in Chapter 2. And the pejorative, or negative, connotations of the term "fast food" definitely influenced Schlosser's title.

The Book's Origins

In the 1990s Schlosser wrote an article for The Atlantic magazine about California's strawberry industry. He says researching this article was his introduction to "the world of modern food production." The difference between "what you see in the supermarket and what you see in the fields" startled him.

The article attracted the attention of Rolling Stone magazine editors, who asked Schlosser to write a similar exposé about fast food. Schlosser initially had doubts. He feared writing in a "snobby and elitist" tone and planned to keep the piece lighthearted at first. But his research uncovered more and more connections. Realizing "the growth of fast food is a history of America after World War II," he discovered "the topic provided enough material for a full-length book."

As Schlosser investigated different aspects of the fast food industry, he met with resistance from McDonald's and the major meatpacking companies. McDonald's executives, he claims, never agreed to interviews and wouldn't cooperate with the fact-checking process. Meatpacking companies didn't allow him to visit the facilities. However, Schlosser believed he needed to see the inside of a slaughterhouse and admits he "got in there on somewhat disingenuous terms." Individual workers at restaurants and meatpacking factories, on the other hand, were glad to talk to Schlosser, who says they wanted their stories told to the world. In fact, Schlosser himself stopped eating ground beef after researching its origins and no longer allowed his young children to eat fast food. Schlosser still eats other animal products and says he doesn't think his readers need to become vegetarians, as long as they know where their food is coming from.

Reception, Resistance, and Reform

When the book was first published in 2001, fast food executives fought back. The vice president of public affairs for the North American Meat Institute said Schlosser was "trying to paint a picture of 1906 in order to scare people. Unfortunately, fear and graphic stories sell." McDonald's, Schlosser says, hired a public relations firm to discredit his work. Protesters came to his book tours. He was accused of being "un-American."

Nonetheless, Schlosser is encouraged by some reforms since 2001. Leading fast food chains have formed partnerships with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based group protecting farm workers' rights. New York and California have passed food-labeling laws. More people eat organic, locally grown food, and spending on organic food has increased 20-fold since the 1990s.

However, other aspects of the fast food industry, he argues, haven't changed. Slaughterhouses still produce contaminated meat and abuse their workers. Reflecting on Fast Food Nation in 2012, Schlosser says "the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] still lacks the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens." The industry's revenue has increased, and so has the number of its ads that target children. Schlosser is also disturbed by fast food chains' marketing to low-income communities, where customers can't typically afford access to organic food. He maintains change will come only through consumers' "realizing how much power a handful of companies have over their lives."
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