Ten years ago, on January 17, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser was published. Key parts of Fast Food Nation had already been serialised in Rolling Stone magazine a few years earlier but Schlosser's book was to have a huge impact on how America's fast food industry was perceived by consumers.
Fast Food Nation is a classic muckraking book. In fact, it might be one of the best muckraking books ever written and proudly sits alongside The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Why is Fast Food Nation so good? It tackled a key social issue (eating), it revealed many facts unknown outside the fast food industry, it made people angry (consumers felt duped and massive corporate felt exposed) but none of the book's content has ever been challenged in court.
That Schlosser has never been hauled before a judge is amazing as he offers a relentless stream of frightening factual information rather than assumptions, guesses and half truths. It's also impressive because the author exposed the practices of global corporations who possess armies of lawyers, public relations people, political lobbyists and friends in powerful places. They could have tried to crush him but a prolonged legal fight would simply have further publicised the parts of their businesses they would rather keep out of the public eye.
Many people cannot look at a hamburger now without considering where the beef came from, the number of preservatives, its product's smell, the small plastic toy that accompanied it, the spotty mumbling teenager who served it and the adverts that promoted it. It used to be just a hamburger.
Muckraking books are fairly common but really good ones are few and far between. The Jungle, which exposed the horrors of the American meatpacking industry, is probably the best of the lot and that gem is still worth reading even though it is more than 100 years old. Silent Spring, published in 1962, sparked the environmental movement by revealing the dangers of pesticides and pollution. DDT was banned thanks to this book. Muckrakers have helped to bring down politicians (All the President's Men) and huge corporations (The History of the Standard Oil Company), but they can also pay heavily for their work – Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in 2006 for exposing Vladimir Putin's strong-arm tactics.
Although muckraking is a worldwide phenomenon, America's investigative journalists have particularly embraced the genre with the golden age of muckraking being around the start of the 20th century when Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell were making headlines.
Some books can be tossed back onto the bookshelf as just another novel or just another biography, but the best muckraking books continue to make an impact long after the reader finishes the final page. Happy 10th birthday to Fast Food Nation and long live the muckrakers.