"Fast Food Nation" and "The Jungle": The Changes in Fast Food Industry

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Major developments in the meatpacking industry from the early 1900’s to the present include laws put into place by Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve working conditions, protect animal welfare, and improve the quality of meat being sold to consumers. Working conditions have been a major issue in the meatpacking industry since the earIy 1900’s, and have seen some improvement since then. In the early 1900’s, workers faced poor, harsh working conditions, low wages, long hours, and risk of injury and death. Employees worked in dark, unventilated rooms, that were unbearably hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter.

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In Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, he takes a tour of a slaughterhouse. According to Schlosser, to protect employees from getting cut by sharp knives, they wear pounds of “chainmail”. Chainmail is a type of steel armor, that is flexible enough to allow workers to move around while protecting them from injury. However, chainmail is not always an effective method of preventing injury to workers. Also, employees usually wear knee-high, rubber boots because there is usually a large amount of blood on the floor. Employees stand extremely close together while working rapidly on the assembly line in a slaughterhouse. Although working conditions are better today than they were in the early 1900’s, employees are still expected to work rapidly which can cause accidents and injury. Even though technology has benefited the meatpacking industry, working in a slaughterhouse is still the most dangerous job in the United States.

In the early 1900s unskilled workers consisted of immigrants and were typically earned pennies per hour (Meat Packing Industry, 2008). Skilled workers did not have it much better, making about fifty cents an hour, and working long ten hour days, six days a week. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted to establish minimum wage and addressed the issue of overtime and child labor. Women in the meatpacking industry were often sexually taken advantage of, either being raped by her boss or forced into prostitution to support herself because of low wages. According to The Jungle, Ona was repeatedly raped by her boss and forced into prostitution after being blackmailed by her boss. Men were usually paid more than women, although they were usually doing similar tasks. Today, the meatpacking industry is run by a large amount of illegal immigrants, being paid extremely low wages. Due to employees being paid low wages, slums are still an issue today. The fast food industry employs mainly teenagers, immigrants, and the elderly. They are often paid low minimum wages, for long hours, since they do not require much skill to work at a fast food establishment. However, minimum wage has been increasing for decades. From 2015 to the present, many states have been fighting for a fifteen dollar minimum wage. However, not every state has converted to a higher minimum wage due to the negative effects. In the early 1900’s the risk of injury and even death was common, and often times avoidable. The assembly line system caused the process to move quickly and conveniently; however, the lines moved so fast that a man could accidentally chop his finger off from cutting carcasses so quickly. In The Jungle, Sinclair explained that a steer was loose from his chains, and as Jurgis attempted to get away but twisted his ankle on the tool that collects cattle blood.

Similarly today, slaughterhouses uses an assembly line system. However, it is not nearly as dangerous as it was in the early 1900’s. With constantly advancing technology, skilled workers are not needed for an assembly line process. Although there have been many advances dealing with workers conditions since the early 1900’s, the meatpacking industry still proves to be as dangerous today as it was back then. Animal welfare in the meatpacking industry has been gradually changing for the better since the USDA began to implement laws to prevent inhumane slaughter. Animals were slaughtered without being stunned, and often times were still alive when they were being butchered. According to Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, animals’ throats were cut before they were dead yet, causing a long, painful death, until they were dropped into boiling water.

The Humane Slaughter Act of 1978 ensured a quick and painless death by a rapid and effective means of stunning. According to Schlosser, slaughterhouses follow the correct procedure by stunning the steer, killing it or rendering it insensitive to pain. However, not all steers are killed immediately after they are stunned, and chained to the ceiling. For example, a steer fell from the ceiling and into the end of a conveyor belt while it was still alive and struggling. To keep the cattle calm and unaware of their fates, the path into the slaughterhouse prevents the cattle coming in from seeing the other slaughtered cattle. This prevents cattle from feeling less anxious and stressed than they have to be. Many technological advances are used in the meatpacking industry to slaughter cattle humanely as possible. Captive bolt pistols are used to stun and kill cattle effectively, usually killing them within ninety-six seconds. Compared to the early 1900’s, cattle feel as little pain as possible when it comes to the slaughter process. The quality of meat being sold to consumers was atrocious in the early 1900’s. According to The Jungle, spoiled meat was usually canned, smoked, or ground to prevent the public from seeing the bad spot. Additionally, sausage was stored near rodent feces, and if meat fell on the floor, it would only be dusted off before placing it back on the assembly line. A government inspector was present, but many carcasses went uninspected. Shortly after The Jungle was published, the severity of the meatpacking industry was brought to the attention of the public. The same year, Congress passed the Federal Food and Drug Act of 1906 to prevent the manufacture and sale of undesirable products. Congress also passed The Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which ensured products were slaughtered and handled in a sanitary process with government inspectors present.

Today, food poisoning from fast food restaurants is not uncommon. Occasionally, manure is accidentally mixed with the ground beef during slaughter, which contaminates the meat with E. coli. Although cases of illnesses are reported and investigated, the United States Government could not demand a recall on meat from their consumers. According to Schlosser, many mistake can be made by employees in a slaughterhouse. For example, basic sanitation processes are sometimes forgotten; such as knives not being sanitized after being used multiple times, and picking up meat that has fallen on the floor without decontaminating it whatsoever. Practices like these make it sound like not much has changed since the early 1900’s as far as the handling of meat go. Today, the quality of meat being sold to consumers is better than it was in the early 1900’s, however meat inspection is still a major concern. In 2016, food recalls in the United States peaked to an all-time high. In a way, this is good because government inspectors have learned to catch the problem before a huge outbreak occurs. However, there is still a large need for change in order for there to be less recalls on meat in the future. Compared to the early 1900’s, the quality of meat has improved majorly, however, there is always room for improvement.

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In conclusion, since the early 1900’s there have been major improvements to benefit working conditions, protect animal welfare, and to improve the quality of meat being sold to consumers. Laws put into place by the FDA and USDA have benefited employees, animals, and consumers. Although conditions have improved tremendously since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, Eric Schlosser revealed in Fast Food Nation, that there is still room for some major improvements.

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“Fast Food Nation” and “The Jungle”: the Changes in Fast Food Industry. (2020, September 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 30, 2023, from
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