The food chain is not what it used to be. More and more centralized and autonomous conglomerates have supplanted local food production and butcher shops. Well paid workers, ranchers and farmers have been replaced by mega-harvesters and food processors and by minimum wage, unskilled workers.
Most of us are at least dimly aware of these changes, but Eric Schlosser provides the sordid, often gruesome, details.
In this carefully researched and informative jeremiad, Schlosser leads us directly to the villain's doorsteps. His targets are sometimes highly visible (ubiquitous fast food chains, especially) but often off the radar screen, (manufacturers of chemical taste substitutes, french fry suppliers, congressmen and lobbyists).
The main thrust of his argument is that the less localized the source of our food, the greater the risk of harmful exposure to e-coli, salmonella and other bacterial pathogens. Bacterial outbreaks are not often discovered until they have become widespread. Most damning of all, the companies that are responsible for the outbreaks often drag their heels in releasing information and are under no legal compunction to do so. Government agencies such as the FDA, the FTC and OSHA are hindered by, and in some cases controlled by, the industries they are supposed to monitor.
Schlosser's battle plan calls for public pressure upon our government to effect changes in labor practices, safety standards (both in terms of worker safety and sanitary standards), and quality of workplace. The food industry, left to its own devices, has shown no historical willingness to make improvements on its own. The food industry's proposed solution to bacterial contamination is irradiation. Addressing the source of the problem (assembly lines in meat packing houses move too quickly to be accurately monitored and lead to worker accidents) would cut into the bottom line profits of the corporations.
Schlosser proceeds in his inquisition in a measured manner for the most part. The one exception might be when he takes us into the depths of a slaughterhouse "somewhere in the high plains." I can appreciate that the scene he witnessed and which he describes is genuinely horrific, but his tone shifts from reportorial/objective to horror novelist/sensational. Though it is not a major mark against his credibility, I did take the book down one star for that chapter.
I do hope that the book performs its purpose and that Schlosser's clarion call will be heeded by the powers that be in government. Of course, that will happen only if his readers tell their friends and at least organize some e-mail campaigns to let their government representatives know that they are concerned about the quality and safety of what they and their children put in their stomachs.