Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
Though I’d read several books about food in the last few years, I missed this one. So when it came up as a choice for summer reading in the English II Honors class, I thought I’d try it as well.
Fast Food Nation follows a tradition of muckraking journalism—it takes a problem, reports on it in depth, and hopes that through education, people will come together and demand change. I recommend reading the paperback edition because there is a section about the blowback from the original book. It made some very powerful people very angry. Also—don’t let the length of the book scare you. The last 100 pages are just the notes and bibliography.
Fast Food Nation begins by making interesting connections between the American Dreams of Walt Disney and Ray Kroc, one of the founders (the man who started the franchise we know today) of McDonald’s and goes on to discuss those of Carl Karcher (founder of Carl’s Jr.). Schlosser shows the darker side of these men as well as the energy, hard work, and vision that each needed to make his dream come true. (If your understanding of Walt Disney is completely rosy, and you are interested, you can find documentation of the other side in any biography written in the last 15 years—his involvement in fast food in minor. So FFN doesn’t spend too much time on him.)
Well, unfortunately, some big dreams turn into nightmares, and fast food dreams came to cause many problems across the nation. As McDonald’s and Ronald McDonald became the most recognized brand and character across the country, Americans ate more and more fast food, becoming fatter and fatter—and thus unhealthy in many ways. Schlosser discusses some of the social forces that are involved as well—with both parents working outside the home, often no one feels like cooking.
The sections of the book on teenage employees and how easy it is to create an uneducated, low-wage, benefits-free work force are interesting, as is the successful efforts of McDonald’s to keep workers from unionizing, and fast food employers’ ability to get millions of dollars in federal funds (yeah, taxpayers’ money) to train their workers while mechanizing jobs so that no training is necessary. There’s also the outrage of vegetarians and Hindu people over beef stock in French fires (it makes them taste better) as well as how fast food production has eliminated that American icon, the cowboy on the range. But the part of the book that really had people upset—that caused attacks on Schlosser’s credibility—was the section on the meat-packing industry. This feels like a flashback to The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. (A comparison of the two books would make a great class project.)
The speed with which cattle are killed and processed has risen exponentially. A job that once required the skill of a butcher is done in assembly-line fashion. Large meat-packing corporations advertise for workers in Mexico, who come to the jobs (legally or illegally). They have no health insurance, and the injury rate is very high. Injured workers are ‘kicked to the curb’ and new ones replace them. Reading this section of the book makes you think that working in meat packing must be one of the worst jobs in the world. But the part that makes you sick is that, due to the speed and lack of training in butchering, when cattle are disemboweled, feces sprays on the meat which is later ground in and arrives in your fast food hamburgers. That’s one reason why E. coli started breaking out, leading to illness and death. In addition, sick cows are killed, dirty meat and blood from the floor is mixed in with the final product. While this section of the book is stomach-turning, it’s also riveting—you can’t stop reading.
And there’s a great lesson. Although people have tried through government to pass laws to change the industry (pretty unsuccessfully—meat packers donate a lot of money to conservative legislators, and one who was vital to these decisions at the time the book was written was married to a woman on the board of the largest meat packer in the world), what has worked much better is to stop eating at fast food places. When business declines, they make changes to bring it back.