by Eric Schlosser
Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani
Eric Schlosser's compelling new book, "Fast Food Nation," will not only make you think twice before eating your next hamburger, but it will also make you think about the fallout that the fast food industry has had on the American social and cultural landscape: how it has affected everything from ranching and farming to diets and health, from marketing and labor practices to larger economic trends.
As the subtitle of his book clearly indicates, Schlosser is not sanguine about the consequences of the fast food business. He argues that "the centralized purchasing decisions of the large restaurant chains and their demand for standardized products have given a handful of corporations an unprecedented degree of power over the nation's food supply" and that as "the basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today's retail economy," small businesses have been marginalized and regional differences smoothed over. A deadening homogenization, he writes, has been injected into the country and increasingly the world at large.
Schlosser, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, draws on such works as Jim Hightower's "Eat Your Heart Out," Stan Luxenberg's "Roadside Empires," Robert Emerson's "New Economics of Fast Food," and "Big Mac: The Unauthorized Story of McDonald's" by Max Boas and Steve Chain. He has also done a lot of legwork, interviewing dozens of fast food workers, farmers, ranchers and meatpackers in an effort to trace the snowballing effect that fast-food production methods have had on their work.
The resulting book, which began as a two-part article in Rolling Stone magazine, is not a dispassionate examination of the subject but a fierce indictment of the industry. Schlosser contends that "the profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of society," including a rising obesity rate and an increase in food-borne illnesses (most notably, those caused by the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, whose spread has been facilitated by the growing centralization of the meat production process).
He argues that "since the administration of President Richard Nixon, the fast food industry has worked closely with its allies in Congress and the White House to oppose new worker safety, food safety and minimum wage laws." He urges the government to ban advertising aimed at children, to "create a single food safety agency that has sufficient authority to protect the public health" and to stop subsidizing the sort of dead-end jobs generated by the fast food business.
On occasion, Schlosser undermines the substantive points he wants to make by blaming that industry for virtually every contemporary ill. Talking about restaurant robberies, he writes that "crime and fast food have become so ubiquitous in American society that their frequent combination usually goes unnoticed." Talking about teenagers who take jobs after school to buy a car, he complains that "as more and more kids work to get their own wheels, fewer participate in after-school sports and activities"; "they stay at their jobs late into the night, neglect their homework and come to school exhausted."
Despite such melodramatic lapses, he provides the reader with a vivid sense of how fast food has permeated contemporary life and a fascinating (and sometimes grisly) account of the process whereby cattle and potatoes are transformed into the burgers and fries served up by local franchises. It's an account that includes an unnerving description of the dangerous, injury-filled work performed in slaughterhouses, where job assignments have names like "first legger, knuckle dropper, navel boner" and an equally absorbing description of how the New Jersey-based "flavor industry" tries to make processed frozen food palatable by manipulating taste, aroma and "mouthfeel."
What is perhaps most astonishing about America's fast food business is just how successful it has been: What began in the 1940s as a handful of hot dog and hamburger stands in Southern California has spread, like kudzu, across the land to become a $110 billion industry. According to Schlosser, Americans now spend more on fast food than they spend on higher education, computers, computer software or new cars, or on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and recorded music combined.
Schlosser writes that "on any given day in the United States about one-quarter of the adult population visits a fast food restaurant" and that "the typical American now consumes approximately three hamburgers and four orders of french fries every week."
As fast food franchises from McDonald's to Pizza Hut go global, this
dynamic has assumed an international flavor. In Brazil, Schlosser reports,
McDonald's has already become the nation's largest private employer. Classes
at McDonald's Hamburger University in Oak Park, Illinois, are now taught
in 20 languages, and a Chinese anthropologist notes that all the children
at a primary school in Beijing recognized an image of Ronald McDonald.
For the Chinese, the anthropologist noted, McDonald's represents "Americana
and the promise of modernization."