Synopses & Reviews
To a degree both engrossing and alarming, the story of fast food is the story of postwar America. Though created by a handful of mavericks, the fast food business has triggered the homogenization of our society. Fast food has unleashed the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, spawned an epidemic of obesity, and propelled the juggernaut of American cultural imperialism abroad.
That's a lengthy list of charges, but Schlosser makes them stick with an artful mix of first-rate reportage, wry wit, and careful reasoning. Schlosser has unearthed a trove of fascinating, unsettling truths from the unholy alliance between fast food and Hollywood, to the source of one major chain's flavors (the New Jersey Turnpike), to the seismic changes the industry has wrought in food production, popular culture, and even real estate. He also uncovers fast food's enormous efforts to reel in the youngest, most susceptible consumers even while it hones its institutionalized exploitation of teenagers and minorities. Schlosser then turns a critical eye toward globalization one of today's hottest topics and a phenomenon launched and fueled by fast food.
Fast Food Nation is a groundbreaking work of investigation and cultural history, likely to transform the way America thinks about the way it eats.
"While cataloguing assorted evils with the tenacity and sharp eye of the best investigative journalist, he uncovers a cynical, dismissive attitude to food safety in the fast food industry and widespread circumvention of the government's efforts at regulation....Schlosser establishes a seminal argument for true wrongs at the core of modern America." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Americans spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software or new cars. Every month more than 90 percent of American children eat at McDonald's; the average American eats three hamburgers and four orders of french fries every week.
What's in all those hamburgers? They're most likely made from the meat of worn-out dairy cows (generally the least healthy cattle stock), which spend their days packed in feedlots full of pools of manure. Each burger contains parts of dozens or even hundreds of cows, increasing the likelihood that a sick one will spread its pathogens widely.
Until 1997, those cows, by nature designed to be herbivorous, were fed "livestock waste" rendered remains of dead sheep and cattle, along with the remains of millions of dead cats and dogs purchased every year from animal shelters. Thank God the law was changed: Now they're fed only the remains of horses, pigs and poultry. And if you think your fries are animal-free, guess again. While McDonald's no longer cooks them in beef tallow, a process that until 1990 gave the chain's french fries more saturated fat per ounce than its burgers, McDonald's still acknowledges that some of the flavor comes from "animal products."
Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," is troubled by our nation's fast-food habit, but what goes into the burgers and fries isn't even half the problem, he says. He admits that most of the fast food he ate while he wrote the book "tasted pretty good." (It should, he notes fast-food restaurants rely heavily on the services of the billion-dollar flavor industry, which manufactures and sells the complex chemicals that give distinctive flavors to processed foods such as "smoky" chicken, "strawberry" shakes and even "flame-broiled" burgers.)
The reasons Schlosser sees fast food as a national scourge have more to do with the sheer ubiquity of the stuff the way it has infiltrated almost every aspect of our culture, transforming "not only the American diet, but also our landscape, economy, workforce, and popular culture." An estimated one out of every eight workers has at some point been employed by McDonald's, and the nation's 3.5 million fast-food workers are the largest group of minimum-wage earners.
What's more, the values the fast-food industry spreads embody capitalism at its worst: hostility to workers' rights, along with a dehumanizing emphasis on mass production and uniformity at the expense of meaningful worker training and autonomy. At the same time that they invest large sums to design equipment so streamlined that it requires as little skill as possible to operate, fast-food companies accept hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies for "training" their workers, through programs intended to reward companies that teach job skills to the poor.
Schlosser also details the fast-food industry's efforts to market directly to kids. He's especially interested in the unholy alliance between McDonald's and Disney, two corporations united not just in their hostility to unions and their quasi-feudal style of dealing with their workers but also in their determination to infiltrate the imaginations of toddlers. Of the two, McDonald's has been the more successful: Ninety-six percent of American children recognize Ronald McDonald. Only Santa Claus rates higher.
In perhaps the most disturbing section of "Fast Food Nation," Schlosser reports on the rise in Colorado of corporate "sponsorships" to cover shortfalls in school districts' budgets: "Whether it's first graders learning to read or teenagers shopping for their first car, we can guarantee an introduction of your product and your company to these students in the traditional setting of the classroom," reads one chilling brochure for a Kids Power Marketing Conference. Fast-food companies are at the leading edge of this new marketing strategy, placing not just hallway ads and banners in schools but also targeted, branded educational materials in classrooms, produced with tax-deductible dollars.
With its far-reaching analysis of a low-grade sickness nibbling at the very entrails of America, Fast Food Nation is a jeremiad, but Schlosser never comes off as a "sky is falling" street-corner raver or bullheaded finger-pointer. His fury is evident, but his voice is measured and his methods are subtle. He eschews alarmist adjectives, preferring instead to let his artfully assembled mountain of statistics and damning quotations make its own case. He's obviously arguing from the left and yet he never oozes ideology; he criticizes corporate domination of the cattle industry, for example, by painting portraits of independent ranchers who have been run out of business. "The ranchers most likely to be in financial trouble today," he writes, "are those who live the life and embody the values supposedly at the heart of the American West. They are independent and self-sufficient, cherish their freedom, and believe in hard work and are now paying the price."
Schlosser isn't opposed to the concept of fast food per se. He includes examples of fast-food pioneers who marched to their own individualist beat, such as Carl Karcher, the founder of the Carl's Jr. chain. Karcher is no Alice Waters, but his example shows the value of stubborn hard work and honest business practices. Karcher's blindness to the downside of the fast-food revolution in which he played a part seems to come more from a sort of tone-deafness than from greed.
Even in the book's gross-out section on food safety, Schlosser concedes that, so far, the slaughterhouse conditions he documents present no widespread health threat. And the book ends with what can only be called a tribute to In N Out Burger of California, a family-owned chain that has refused to franchise and pays the highest wages in the fast-food industry. In N Out peels its own potatoes and uses fresh beef, and it does without microwaves, heat lamps and freezers. It's ranked first in the nation in food quality, service and atmosphere, and the most expensive thing on the menu costs $2.45.
So what can be done to break the grip that the rest of the fast-food industry has on us? In a brief section titled "What to Do," Schlosser sketches possible remedies. He wants to see some action by government, including a single food safety agency, higher standards for food safety in school cafeterias and a ban on advertising "unhealthy foods to children," which might then cause McDonald's, for example, to lower the fat content of its Happy Meals, and thus make a dent down the road in the trend toward obesity. He also suggests eliminating job-training subsidies for fast-food chains that churn through workers and don't actually help them acquire any skills, as well as "passing new laws to faciliate union organizing" at these chains, which he admits might not lead to widespread unionizing but would encourage the industry to treat workers better.
His final appeal to end the fast-food industry's bid for domination, however, is aimed not at government but at consumers: "Turn and walk out the door," he encourages, the next time you're about to buy fast food.
As a reader and an eater I'm Schlosser's perfect audience. I consume my share of hamburgers, but rarely at a fast-food chain, unless I'm starving and trapped on Interstate 95. I'm probably as turned off by the nutritional vacuum fast food represents as I am by the specter of automaton minimum-wage staffers reciting their "Would you like to supersize that?" scripts. So why did I get a sinking feeling as this altogether reasonable, well-researched and heartfelt book ended? Why do I doubt that Schlosser will end up changing many minds not already sympathetic to his point, let alone alter much behavior? I think the main problem is Schlosser's appeal to cold, hard reason rather than enlightened appetite.
He's right that it's important to try to change public opinion about acceptable corporate behavior, especially when corporations are using shady practices to control an activity as intimate and as central to our overall well-being as eating. But Schlosser has left out a discussion of what needs to replace all those fast-food meals the kinds of fresh foods that would be affordable, accessible and familiar enough to override Americans' daily cravings for fries, burgers and other processed, taste-engineered foods. And he doesn't even approach the question of what it will take for a healthier and more varied way of eating to win over the low-income people who are the captive market for fast food right now.
The improvement of the American diet in this age of rampant obesity is a complicated socioeconomic problem, but it's partly a question of changing tastes, of educating palates and making no apologies, regardless of the implied snobbery of the project. Surely, "Let them eat In N Out Double Doubles" can't be the only answer. Schlosser has certainly made his case, and we'd be fools to ignore him. But in the end, I found myself wishing that Fast Food Nation had tried to appeal more to the stomach than to the brain. Maria Russo, Salon.com
"While excellently researched, Fast Food Nation is not at all dull but is peppered with acerbic commentary and telling interviews. Of critical importance is the end: just as the reader despairs of a solution, Schlosser outlines a set of remedies, along with steps to get them accomplished. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"An exemplary blend of polemic and journalism, guaranteed to put you off your lunch....A tale full of sound, fury, and popping grease." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"The coming together of so many diverse social, scientific, and economic trends in a single industry makes this book a relevant, compelling read and a cautionary tale of the many risks generated by this ubiquitous industry." Booklist
"Fast Food Nation should be another wake-up call, a super-size serving of common sense." Atlanta Journal Constitution
"Fast Food Nation" the movie is slated to be released by Fox Searchlight on November 17, 2006. Starring Ethan Hawke, Avril Lavigne, Patricia Arquette, and Greg Kinnear.
Fast food has hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled American cultural imperialism abroad. That's a lengthy list of charges, but Eric Schlosser makes them stick with an artful mix of first-rate reportage, wry wit, and careful reasoning.
Schlosser's myth-shattering survey stretches from California's subdivisions, where the business was born, to the industrial corridor along the New Jersey Turnpike, where many of fast food's flavors are concocted. Along the way, he unearths a trove of fascinating, unsettling truths -- from the unholy alliance between fast food and Hollywood to the seismic changes the industry has wrought in food production, popular culture, and even real estate.
About the Author
Eric Schlosser is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. He has received a number of journalistic honors, including a National Magazine Award for an Atlantic article he wrote about marijuana and the war on drugs. This is his first book.
Table of Contents
I. The American Way
1. The Founding Fathers 13
2. Your Trusted Friends 31
3. Behind the Counter 59
4. Success 91
II. Meat and Potatoes
5. Why the Fries Taste Good 111
6. On the Range 133
7. Cogs in the Great Machine 149
8. The Most Dangerous Job 169
9. What's in the Meat 193
10. Global Realization 225
Epilogue: Have It Your Way 255
Photo Credits 273
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
Schlosser discusses the eagerness of fast food companies to avoid hiring skilled workers and to rely instead upon highly unskilled workers. In fact, some chains openly embrace "zero training" as their ultimate goal. Since these companies are providing a steady paycheck, is it really the obligation of fast food chains to take an interest in their workers and to teach them job skills? Also, since many of the workers are recently arrived immigrants, doesn't employment at fast food restaurants offer them a toehold in the American economy and an opportunity to move onto a better job?
Over the last several decades, fast food companies have aggressively targeted children in their marketing efforts. Should advertisers be permitted to target children who lack the sophistication to make informed decisions and are essentially being lured into eating high fat, high calorie food through toys and cute corporate mascots? Is it possible that fast food companies—like tobacco companies—are recruiting increasingly younger consumers in order to insure a steady customer base as their older constituents die from heart disease, diabetes, and other obesity-related disorders?
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was the first book to sound the clarion call about the appalling abuses inherent in mass-produced beef. In the decades since its publication, the state of meatpacking has received scant attention. Were you shocked that Fast Food Nation documents some of the same unsafe conditions and practices that Sinclair revealed nearly 100 years ago? Were you under the impression that the unsafe conditions in meatpacking had largely been eliminated and that the United States' beef and poultry industry set the standard for other countries? Does the author's contention that not enough has changed in the meat industry challenge the progressive belief in American capitalism-that it will lift all boats and make constant improvements in working and living conditions?
Fast food chains, despite the myriad problems documented by the author, have an undeniable appeal-they are convenient and offer inexpensive and tasty food. Even if you are disturbed by the practices of these corporations, could you realistically swear off your food, given its ubiquity and mainstream appeal? If you are driving home from work, tired and hungry, and your two choices are a familiar fast food restaurant or an unknown Mom-and-pop, which would you choose? What kinds of implications does this choice have?
If one accepts the author's assertions that the beef processors and fast food corporations are engaging in patterns of unethical conduct, what can the consumer do to modify their behavior? Can the conduct of an individual have an impact on a company's practices? Why is a company most likely to change its conduct? To generate public goodwill? To respond to its employees' concerns? To address diminishing profits?
Since few people would confuse fast food with health food, who bears the greater responsibility for the alarming rate of obesity in children in the United States: the fast food chains that market "supersize" meals to children, or parents who are not educating their children about the benefits of a balanced diet? Can well-intentioned parents maintain control over the eating habits of their children in an era when school districts are contracting to bring fast food into the school cafeteria?