Fast Food Nation--Read This Book

Fast Food Nation--Read This Book

Un-Happy Meal
A review of Fast Food Nation
14 Aug 2001
Environmental news from GRIST MAGAZINE

Talk back to the editor by Elizabeth Grossman

Given my distaste for fast food and the general knowledge of its detrimental
effect on the American diet, I didn't expect to find any revelations in Fast
Food Nation. But journalist Eric Schlosser's thoroughly researched and
well-written probe into the industry that has transformed American
roadsides, eating patterns, and agriculture was actually an eye-opener.
Fast Food Nation
By Eric Schlosser
Houghton Mifflin Co., 288 pages, 2001

Fast Food Nation traces the history of the fast food industry from modest
hotdog stands to the umpteen billion burgers sold as America spread its
gospel of quick-and-easy (and greasy) cuisine around the globe. Yet Fast
Food Nation is far more than a lament for home cooking and mom-and-pop
diners. It is a serious piece of investigative journalism into an industry
that has helped concentrate corporate ownership of American agribusiness,
while engaging in labor practices that are often shameful.

The McDonald's, Burger Kings, and Wendy's of the world have their roots in
the car-centric culture of California of the late 1940s and 1950s, a culture
that spread as the interstate highway system was laid and suburbs sprawled
nationwide. Shrewd entrepreneurs like Carl Karchner and Ray Kroc expanded
their drive-in restaurants to accommodate Americans' increasing mobility and
desire for familiarity. By bringing the all-American concept of
assembly-line production into the food industry, they started an industry
that would be worth billions.

To promote mass production and profits, the industry must keep labor and
material costs low. Teenagers and recent immigrants make up much of the fast
food workforce, often under intimidating and poor conditions. Turnover is
huge, and the companies profit from it: Short-term workers accrue few
benefits and are less likely to organize. Schlosser recounts how McDonald's
and its ilk have fought against unions, sometimes closing stores to prevent
workers from unionizing.
Want fries with that?

Then there's the food. Three companies grow and process about 80 percent of
all French fries now served by fast food chains. "The multinational food
companies," writes Schlosser, "operate French fry plants in a number of
different regions, constantly shifting production to take advantage of the
lowest potato prices. The economic fortunes of individual farmers or local
communities matter little in the grand scheme." The same practices are true
in the ranching, poultry, and hog industries. And if industrial,
chemical-reliant farming isn't disturbing enough, Schlosser next reveals
"why the fries taste good."

"Flavorists" in laboratories along the New Jersey turnpike concoct the
"natural and artificial flavors" found in almost every processed food
product. McDonald's infuses its fries and chicken sandwiches with essences
that mimic beef tallow. A milkshake's strawberry flavor is more likely to
come from a test tube than from actual fruit. Yet the list of volatile
chemicals in artificial fruit flavors sounds benign after reading the story
behind a "quarter-pounder."

To witness the gruesome business of meat-processing, Schlosser visited
slaughterhouses. What he discovered was both repugnant and hazardous. Among
the mostly unskilled workforce, severe injuries are common. The
meat-processing industry and restaurant chains continually lobby against
regulations that would improve worker and food safety. "Anyone who brings
raw ground beef into his or her kitchen today must regard it as a potential
biohazard," writes Schlosser. High-volume meat production makes it easy for
virulent strains of bacteria to travel far and wide. Schlosser minces no
words in explaining a major source of contamination. It's simple, he says:
"There is shit in the meat."

Fast Food Nation ends with a call for consumers to demand better treatment
of workers and more healthful, safer food. "Nobody in the United States is
forced to buy fast food," writes Schlosser. "The first step toward
meaningful change is by far the easiest: Stop buying it." After reading this
book, you shouldn't find that a hard choice to make.
- - - - - - - - -

Elizabeth Grossman is coeditor of Shadow Cat. She writes from Portland, Ore.

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