Sunday, April 15, 2007


Book Recommendation FAST FOOD NATION
By Eric Schlosser
Houghton Mifflin; 356 pages; $25

Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" is a good old-fashioned muckraking expose that's as disturbing as it is irresistible, and that ultimately calls for the boycott of one of the most powerful and lucrative industries in the U.S.
This is the stuff of PR department nightmares.

Exhaustively researched, frighteningly convincing, this book seeks no less than to peel back the smiley- face image that the fast-food industry has worn for decades and reveal what lurks behind the Happy Meals, secret sauces and fries. The book's subtitle pretty much says it all: "The Dark Side of the All-American Meal."

"Hundreds of millions of people buy fast food every day without giving it much thought, unaware of the subtle and not so subtle ramifications of their purchases," writes the National Magazine Award-winning Schlosser. "They rarely consider where this food came from, how it was made, what it is doing to the community around them. . . . The whole experience is transitory and soon forgotten."

Beginning as a two-part article in Rolling Stone that generated the most mail of any piece published by the magazine during the 1990s, Schlosser's journalism successfully expands into a comprehensive, sobering book-length account of the historical and cultural rise of fast food, an industry that within a relatively brief period of time has "helped to transform not only the American diet, but also our landscape, economy, workforce, and popular culture. "

Interestingly, the men who created these empires were traveling salesmen, high school dropouts and iconoclasts -- which is ironic, considering the homogenization and regimentation their companies imposed with fanatical rigor.
Schlosser presents a litany of charges against the fast-food companies and their practices

  • marketing to children
  • establishing the indentured servitude of franchising
  • manipulating a minimum-wage workforce (primarily young, unskilled, recent immigrants) by withholding medical benefits
  • perpetuating turnover to deter unionizatio
  • yet taking full advantage of government subsidies for nonexistent "training."
  • These are just a few of the greed-is-good tactics employed to keep profits high.

What's most revealing is how the fast food industry has single-handedly altered American agriculture. Companies such as McDonald's, the nation's largest purchaser of meat, have encouraged consolidation and centralized production. Today very few companies supply the vast majority of the nation's beef, poultry and potatoes, the staples of the fast food diet; small businesses, ranchers and farmers are disappearing. Most alarming, says Schlosser, is how changes in food production and cattle raising have increased the likelihood of widespread outbreaks of food-borne pathogens, such as E. coli.

Schlosser contends that the real health dangers remain hidden from the general public, while the meat packing industry continues to vehemently oppose further regulation of their food safety practices. Moreover, the meat packing industry enjoys a rare immunity from federal intervention.

Although the U.S. government can demand the nationwide recall of a stuffed animal or toy, according to Schlosser, "it cannot order a meatpacking company to remove contaminated lethal ground beef from fast food kitchens and supermarket shelves."

Schlosser's research is impressive:
  • statistics
  • reportage
  • first-person accounts
  • interviews
  • mixing the personal with the global

But of the book's many memorable images -- visits to a slaughterhouse and a Willie Wonka-like "flavor" factory, Mikhail Gorbachev addressing a fast food convention in Las Vegas, the suicide of a Colorado rancher --

None is more indelible than Schlosser's description of Eastern Germany, where "in town after town statues of Lenin have come down and statues of Ronald McDonald have gone up."

Schlosser suggests we stop buying what they sell.

I, for one, have taken that suggestion to heart.


Antony Hanson said...

And I have tsken that suggestion as well.

Daniel said...

I am with you and Antony. The movie and the book just reinforced my resolve.

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