Fast Food Nation, the Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser, HarperCollins, New York, 2002. Paperback $13.95. A hardcover edition was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2001.
Almost everyone eats, or has eaten, fast food. 90% of American children eat fast food at least once a month, and many eat it daily. Fast food affects all of us, directly or indirectly. This is a must-read book.
Every page is a bombshell. And yet, although its packed with information, Fast Food is very easy to read. Eric Schlosser is a journalist, and Ive found that journalists write interesting books. This one is gripping.
Eric Schlosser places the fast food industry at the center of the mushrooming growth of our corporate culture. A false competition, plus the instant popularity of fast food, has led to cost-cutting procedures which now endanger the land, the animals, the workers, the culture, and the health of the consumer. Eric documents much of this, in gruesome detail. At the same time he shows the broad picture, through the history of fast food, and its social and global consequences.
Eric is an investigative reporter, and he has extensively interviewed many people in the industry, both major figures and workers. Its enlightening to read about some of the early entrepreneurs who started out with good intentions, and then got caught up in the doctrine of profits at any price. Eric places the birth of the fast food movement in southern California, where the automobile reigned supreme. And the time was rightshortly after WW II, when people were becoming hypnotized by the golden glow of technology.
In a short time, culture was transformed. Ranchers disappearedto become hired cogs in a cattle machine, run by the large meat companies, who provided the rules, the food, and picked up the cattle when they met specifications (while the rancher ran the risks of ranching). The cattle feed contains much animal scrap, because thats what the meat companies have. So cattle eat other cattle (and pigs and sheep and rats and horses and feces), including those viruses which are developing the ability to jump speciessuch as mad cow disease. Mad cow disease can incubate for from 10-40 years before symptoms showand very few cattle in the U.S. are tested for it. "We dont find mad cow disease in the U.S." Sure, we barely test for it. Denial has been the watchword of American business.
This is just one facet of the fast food business, but its huge. There are many other facets, and each one is huge in its effects and ramifications. Schlosser takes us through the whole ugly chain in a spellbinding manner. And in relatively few pages; this is a short book.
What is so intriguing is that these truly bad practices are not necessary. There is a shining example, also in Californiaone small chain that does everything in a humane and high quality mannerfrom the meat they select to the way they prepare it and the way they treat their workers. They pay high wages, there are no microwaves or freezers in their kitchens. Beef is fresh and ground on the premises daily, potatoes are peeled every day to make the fries, and milk shakes are made from ice cream. The most expensive item on the menu is $2.45. This is the In-N-Out chain.
In March of 2000, the annual Restaurants and Institutions Choice in Chains survey found that among the nations fast food hamburger chains, In-N-Out ranked first in food quality, value, service, atmosphere, and cleanliness. According to the consumers surveyed for this poll, the lowest-quality food of any major hamburger chain was served at McDonalds. And yet, millions of kids are getting their tastebuds trained on McDonalds hamburgers. From the very beginning, McDonalds has made a concerted and very successful pitch to children. More children worldwide recognize Ronald McDonald than they do any other figure.
Schlossers book is extremely illuminating. It provides an enormous perspective on our food supply and on our corporate culture. Every section is mind-blowing. Fast Food Nation has been compared to Rachel Carsons Silent Spring in exposing the warning signs of the breakdown of the food system.
If we KNOW whats happening, we have the motivation and the power to make corrections. Schlosser points out that whereas it takes years to get Congress to enact any regulation re the meat industry (and now regulations are going backwards, with Bushs method of self-policing, a total farce), if McDonalds puts pressure on meat industries to slow down production lines, test meat, and deliver it relatively clean, industry will clean up their act in weeksat maybe a penny more cost per hamburger. It has happened, so we know its possible.
Its up to us to become informed, and to use consumer pressure to insist on changes which better serve people, as well as the environment. People in other parts of the world are doing this, and McDonalds finds that it can adjust.
McDonalds is a very big lever. They are responsible for 90% of the nations new jobs. They are the largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes. And the McDonalds Corporation is the largest owner of retail property in the world. The majority of its profits come from collecting rent. I could go on and on with "largest." The point is that McDonalds has market heft, and McDonalds policies could lead business into better, healthier, and more humane, standards and practices if they chose. We have to get them to choose. They do respond to consumer pressure.
Read this book. Its small and light, and easy to carry with you. And at the same time, the text is a rich treasure, one that will help you see the world, and particularly the U.S., differently. And probably act differently.