The Terrors of American Food
” Prescription drugs kill more people a year than traffic accidents - and that doesn’t count traffic accidents caused by prescription drugs” writes Martha Rosenberg, a cartoonist and freelance writer. Her Born with a Junk Food Deficiency follows the grand tradition of American muck-raking, which goes back at least as far as Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, published in 1906, which exposed the horrors in the slaughterhouses of Chicago: sausage containing rat dung and mould, and workers who fell into vats of lard and were never fully retrieved.
In the century and more since Sinclair, there have always been muck-rakers in America, laying bare frauds and poisons in the food supply and quackery in the market for prescription drugs. A classic example was Arthur Kallet and F. J. Schlink’s bestseller from 1933, the memorably titled 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in everyday foods, drugs, and cosmetics. Kallet and Schlink argued that there were terrors lurking everywhere in American food and drugs: the unwitting consumer was being used as a guinea pig for quack drugs, fake antiseptics, insecticides and preservatives. “The hamburger habit”, they wrote, “is just about as safe as walking in an orchard while the arsenic spray is being applied and about as safe as getting your meat out of a garbage can standing in the hot sun.” More recent prophets of doom include Ralph Nader, who lambasted sugary breakfast cereals in the 1970s, and Eric Schlosser, whose brilliant Fast Food Nation (2001) included the killer detail that hamburger meat sometimes contained “irradiated feces”.
The point of muck-raking is to shock and therefore act as a spur to action, though this may play out in ways the author does not anticipate. Sinclair had hoped that, in exposing the inhumane working conditions of the meatpackers, The Jungle would lead to a socialist revolution. The novel concludes with the words “CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!”. Most readers, however, seem to have missed the message about the suffering of the workers and the virtues of cooperative labour, instead fixating on the unhygienic way in which their meat was produced. The Jungle was one factor that contributed to the passage of the overdue Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, but, as Sinclair famously commented, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit its stomach”.